In another decision that grants expanding powers to American corporations, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that family-owned corporations have religious rights and can refuse to pay for specific types of contraceptives for their employees if they violate the religious beliefs of the family that owns the business.
It was a 5-4 decision that split as expected among the court’s conservative and liberal members, setting off an explosive debate over how far-reaching the implications are for family-owned corporations that want to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and the marketplace.
It was also a setback for President Barack Obama’s health care law from a deeply divided court that last year surprisingly upheld a primary feature of Obamacare — financial penalties for the uninsured.
In effect, the court ruled that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. The decision came four years after the court ruled in its stunning Citizens United decision that corporations have free speech rights, allowing influential corporate money to flood election campaigns — showing that the Chief Justice John Roberts court majority has a decided preference for corporate America.
The case, known as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., involved two corporations challenging Obamacare’s contraception coverage requirement on religious principles: Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets. Because Obamacare requires many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception, the companies claimed that the law was requiring them to support abortion since they believed some of the methods are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent embryos from implanting in the womb.
“[W]e must decide whether the challenged … regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.”
But as pointed out by Mother Jones magazine, the court majority was “overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science.”
“According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to — Plan B, Ella, and two intrauterine devices — do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization,” Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden wrote on the liberal magazine’s website.
Alito appeared to ignore the FDA determination, writing that these four contraception methods “may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus.” As pointed out to Mother Jones, Alito cites no science to back up his claim.
In her caustic dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court had “ventured into a minefield,” adding it would disadvantage those employees “who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.”
“In a decision of startling breadth, the court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law … they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” she wrote.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll that came out before the court decision revealed that a majority of Americans oppose letting employers, based on their religious views, exclude certain contraceptives from workers’ insurance coverage. Of the 10,693 people polled, 53 percent disagreed with the statement that employers should be able to choose what forms of contraceptives their health plans provide based on their religious beliefs, while 35 percent agreed and 12 percent said they did not know.