The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court sides with employers over birth control mandate

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court during March oral arguments on the administration's contraception coverage mandate. <br/> (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The federal government can't force owners of closely held for-profit companies to provide birth control coverage to female employees if they object to the administration's requirement on religious grounds, the Supreme Court ruled Monday

The 5-4 ruling, in one of its most contentious cases of the year, recognizes for the first time the religious rights of corporations. Owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Mennonite-owned furniture manufacturer, argued that the administration’s contraception coverage mandate will force them to pay for certain methods, such as emergency contraception and intrauterine devices, that they oppose on religious grounds. The companies’ owners successfully argued that their objection to the contraception policy is protected by a 1993 law protecting an individual's religious exercise.

"Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

Following the recommendation of independent experts, the Obama administration in 2011 required that most employer health plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives as part of preventive benefits that must be provided to employees at no cost under the Affordable Care Act. The court found that the Obama administration failed to prove that the contraception mandate was the least restrictive way of ensuring widespread access to no-cost birth control.

The administration and supporters of the contraception mandate had warned that a broader recognition of corporations’ individual rights could enable more business owners to claim religious exclusions for other health-care services, such as blood transfusions or vaccinations, and civil-rights protections. The court today said its ruling narrowly applies to just the contraception requirement.

All five justices in the court's conservative wing sided with the employers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said the majority opinion ignored the rights of the "thousands of women employed" by the businesses.

This was the Supreme Court’s first ruling on an ACA provision since 2012, when it upheld the law central's feature, the requirement for individuals to have health insurance or pay a fine. In that case, it also said the government couldn't force states to expand Medicaid.

Religious-affiliated groups, such as hospitals and universities, have also challenged the contraception coverage policy in lower courts. The administration offered a work-around to the rule so those groups wouldn’t have to directly supply the coverage, but dozens of lawsuits have been filed objecting to the policy.