The Supreme Court has ruled that family owned and other closely held companies can opt out of the Affordable Care Act's provisions for no-cost prescription contraception in most health insurance plans.
Owners of companies such as the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores had objected on the grounds of religious freedom.
The ruling affirms a Hobby Lobby victory in a lower court and gives new standing to similar claims by other companies.
Update at 11:05 a.m. ET: Quotes From The Opinions
The court concludes that "there is an alternative to the contraceptive mandate," in the opinion that has now been posted to the Supreme Court's website.
It notes that the owners of "closely held for-profit corporations have sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception" and who object to the part of the ACA under which employers are "required to provide coverage for the 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including the 4 that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus."
The owners of Hobby Lobby and another closely held company, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., objected to the coverage requirement for those four drugs, saying that their use ran against their religious beliefs about abortion.
The Department of Health and Human Services argued that the companies forfeited protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 when they became corporations instead of other legal entities.
That 1993 law requires that the government not infringe on religious beliefs "unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest," Justice Alito writes.
In the main dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsberg called the majority's finding "a decision of startling breadth," saying that the ruling means "commercial enterprises ... can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
She added that "The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations' employees and covered dependents."
Ginsburg said the majority's interpretation of the RFRA in the case "is not plausible," saying that the court "falters at each step of its analysis."
And she stated that the government had shown contraceptive coverage "furthers compelling interests in public health and women's well being."
Update at 10:27 a.m. ET: Qualifications And Other Remedies
The court's vote on the case was split 5-4. The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito. Voting against the majority were Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
"The Court says that the government has failed to show that the mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing its interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to birth control," reports SCOTUSBlog. The site adds:
"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."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes that the federal government could choose to pay for contraception coverage, removing the companies from the equation.
Our original post continues:
The case, Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, is perhaps the most important decision of the high court's term, legal analysts say. Burwell, you'll recall, is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who became secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services early this month.
Here's a quick summary of the issue from NPR's Nina Totenberg:
"In enacting the ACA, Congress required large employers to provide basic preventive care for employees. That includes all birth control methods approved by the FDA. Under the law, religious nonprofits were exempted from this requirement, but for-profit corporations were not.
"The Hobby Lobby corporation, which has 500 stores and 16,000 employees, objects to some forms of birth control on religious grounds.
"But the government points to a long line of cases holding that for-profit companies may not use religion as a basis for failing to comply with generally applicable laws."
Hobby Lobby and other companies that don't want to cover contraception cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which "provides that the government 'shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion' unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest," says the overview of the case by SCOTUSBlog.
There are also financial considerations in play.
"Hobby Lobby owners contend that the ACA contraception mandate imposes a substantial burden on them because failure to comply results in big fines — $26 million a year for Hobby Lobby if it opts out of providing insurance altogether," Nina reported in March. "Supporters of the mandate counter that $26 million may be a lot of money, but it is less than the company currently spends on insurance."
Earlier this month, Julie Rovner ran down some of the specifics about the companies' resistance.
Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family, she said, who are evangelical Christians, "and the Hahn family that owns Pennsylvania cabinet-maker Conestoga Wood Specialties are Mennonites."
While both companies already include many forms of birth control in their health plans, Julie reported, "The owners say they are opposed to some forms of birth control — particularly emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella, which can be used to prevent pregnancy if taken within 24 hours to as much as five days after unprotected sex — because these contraceptives prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus."