SCOTUS ruled on Monday that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. It was, a dissent said, “a decision of startling breadth.”
The 5-to-4 ruling, which applied to two companies owned by Christian families, opened the door to many challenges from corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.
The decision, issued on the last day of the term, reflected what appears to be a keqq4ry characteristic of the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — an inclination toward nominally incremental rulings with vast potential for great change.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, emphasized the ruling’s limited scope. For starters, he said, the court ruled only that a federal religious-freedom law applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles. Even those corporations, he said, were unlikely to prevail if they objected to complying with other laws on religious grounds.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent sounded an alarm. She attacked the majority opinion as a radical overhaul of corporate rights, one she said could apply to all corporations and to countless laws.
The contraceptive coverage requirement was challenged by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses on Christian principles: Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets. The requirement has also been challenged in 50 other cases, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby.
Justice Alito said the requirement that the two companies provide contraception coverage imposed a substantial burden on their religious liberty. Hobby Lobby, he said, could face annual fines of $475 million if it failed to comply.
Justice Alito said he accepted for the sake of argument that the government had a compelling interest in making sure women have access to contraception. But he said there were ways of doing that without violating the companies’ religious rights.
The government could pay for the coverage, he said. Or it could employ the accommodation already in use for certain nonprofit religious organizations, one requiring insurance companies to provide the coverage. The majority did not go so far as to endorse the accommodation.
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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President