Court restricts health care mandate

Religious-based firms given OK to opt out of some contraceptive coverage.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for some companies to refuse to provide some contraceptive coverage on Monday, but the impact appears limited to companies that can claim a religious objection to certain devices.

In a controversial 5-4 ruling that prompted testy written exchanges among the justices, the court concluded that for-profit corporations owned by a small group of people can refuse to provide some contraceptive coverage if the owners claim it violates their religious beliefs.

By doing so, the five conservative justices sharply restricted the mandate in the 2010 health law that requires all for-profit companies with more than 50 workers to offer insurance to their workers that includes a complete range of birth control options.

In addition, the ruling seems to open the door to closely-held companies objecting on religious grounds to provide any of the 20 birth-control devices approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including pills and diaphragms.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asserted that the conservative justices concluded that “that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

She warned that the court’s reasoning “appears to permit commercial enterprises … to exclude from their group plans all forms of contraceptives.”

But in an equally pointed response, Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion, wrote the decision dealt only with the contraceptive mandate in the 2010 law known as Obamacare.

“Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs,” Alito wrote. “Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas formed the majority while Ginsburg, and Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented.

The majority concluded that the contraceptive mandate violates a 1993 federal law that declares that government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Kennedy asserted that women can gain access to affordable pills or devices provided the federal government expands a program that currently covers non-profit organizations with a religious connection, such as a university.

Under that program, a non-profit signs a form certifying it is a religious organization and its insurer offers the free contraceptives to the employees. Analysts believe the insurance company still saves money because providing contraceptives is less expensive than paying for a pregnancy.

But the ruling opens the door to other companies challenging the mandate. While the ruling does not extend that right to General Motors or other companies with scores of shareholders, it could impact more than 80 percent of the corporations in the country which are known as closely-held.

“It’s alarming that we are still debating contraception and that women’s contraception choices can be potentially affected by their employers’ beliefs on it,” said Caitlin Borgmann, a professor of law at CUNY in New York.

A closely-held corporation is when five or fewer people own more than 50 percent of the value of the company.

The companies challenging the mandate both argued that providing a full range of birth control options violates their religious beliefs. One was Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania, which is owned by Mennonite Christians. The others were Hobby Lobby, a nationwide craft chain store owned by self-described Christians who close the stores on Sunday, and Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain owned by Hobby Lobby’s executives.

“I suspect the number of for-profit business could make the kind of showing Hobby Lobby made is fairly small,” said Richard Garnett, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. “Anyone can file a lawsuit, but even after Hobby Lobby, most for-profit companies — if they tried to assert a religious exemption — would lose because they wouldn’t be able to establish a sincerely held religious burdened by the regulation.”

The decision could aid efforts by an Urbana firm, Johnson Welded Products, to bypass a portion of the health care law because of the religious beliefs of its owner, Lilli Johnson.

The firm, which manufactures brake reservoirs for the trucking industry, filed a lawsuit against the contraceptive mandate in April last year.

“Johnson Welded Products is in the same position as Hobby Lobby,” said Robert Muise, an attorney for the American Freedom Law Center, which is represented Johnson Welded in the case.

“She wants to run her company pursuant to her Catholic beliefs,” Muise said of the company’s owner. “This mandate prohibits her from doing so.”

A crowd of about 200 people gathered on the court steps as the decision was announced. A group of women chanted, “Keep your courtroom out of our bedroom,” while an anti-abortion rights activist shouted, “Keep your health care out of my wallet.”

Helen Luryi of Washington, D.C., who describes herself as a feminist, said she had been standing outside the court since 8 a.m. “I think some people in this country still have a problem with women having sex lives,” Luryi said.

Matt Sanctis of the Springfield News-Sun and Jessica Wehrman and Emma Ginader of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.