The Supreme Court today handed a victory to religious employers by ruling they cannot be required to provide birth-control coverage for their employees.
In a 5-4 ruling on Hobby Lobby Stores & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Sebelius, the Court said that closely held corporations (companies where just a handful of people hold at least half the shares) may be exempt from the Obamacare mandate that birth control be covered. The justices said the government failed to prove that the mandate was the least restrictive way to guarantee free birth control. The court was divided along ideological lines, with Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas in the majority, and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan dissenting.
The initial reaction:
While Hobby Lobby advocates reacted joyously, the decision was met with immediate disappointment from groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, who said the decision will allow companies to discriminate against women.
“This is a deeply disappointing and troubling ruling that will prevent some women, especially those working hourly-wage jobs and struggling to make ends meet, from getting birth control,” said Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, in a statement shortly after the decision.
1) Today’s ruling is not a free pass for companies to start refusing to pay for their employees’ birth control. The ruling only allows so-called “closely held corporations” to have religious beliefs. Those are companies, similar to Hobby Lobby, where the majority of shares are controlled by just a few people, often one family. The ruling will not allow large, publicly traded companies to deny birth-control coverage based on religious reasons.
2) The ruling is not a free pass to discriminate. The Court warns that religious exemption does not allow companies to discriminate against its workers based on race. But LGBT advocates are still worried that today’s ruling could provide businesses with ammunition for future court cases.
3) Hobby Lobby employees may still get free birth control. The government can still pay for birth control access for employees at companies like Hobby Lobby that claim a religious exemption, the court said. And that will most likely happen, according to SCOTUSblog, which says the Obama administration is “almost certain” to provide coverage.
4) Today’s ruling is not a free pass for companies to claim religious exemptions from other coverage. Critics of Hobby Lobby had expressed concern that if companies can claim a religious exemption to avoid paying for birth control, they might be able to avoid paying for other medical care, including vaccinations and blood transfusions. But the Court ruling is not expected to give these companies any additional wiggle room. According to SCOTUSblog, “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs.” The Court said there is no way to claim a religious exemption to avoid paying Social Security or income taxes.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.