3Qs: Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision

In a highly antic­i­pated deci­sion, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled 5–4 that some for-​​profit com­pa­nies with reli­gious objec­tions can avoid paying for employees’ con­tra­cep­tive care, a require­ment of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health­care over­haul. The ruling would apply to sev­eral “closely-​​held” com­pa­nies including Hobby Lobby, a family-​​owned arts and crafts store, which chal­lenged a pro­vi­sion of the Afford­able Care Act requiring com­pa­nies with more than 50 employees to cover pre­ven­tive care services.

In the majority opinion, Jus­tice Samuel Alito wrote that ruling applies only to con­tra­cep­tives under the health­care law and the Obama admin­is­tra­tion can find ways to pro­vide women the birth con­trol they want, including having the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or out­side insurers pay. The White House said it is reviewing the ruling and would work with Con­gress to ensure women affected would get the cov­erage they require.

Here, Wendy Parmet, the George J. and Kath­leen Waters Matthews Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Law and asso­ciate dean for aca­d­emic affairs, offers fur­ther insight into the sig­nif­i­cance of the case and what it could mean for the Afford­able Care Act.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring for-profit corporations to pay for employees’ insurance coverage of contraceptive care violates a federal law protecting religious freedom.

Why is the ruling significant?

The ruling is significant because it is the first time the justices found that a corporation has a right to exercise freedom of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We don’t really know what is going to happen now.

What are the implications of this ruling with regard to the religious freedom of corporations and similar exemptions?

This is an invitation for litigation. It potentially opens the door to other claims of religious exercise by corporations. For example, a corporation could say it doesn’t want to hire someone who is living with a person he or she is not married to because it is contrary to the corporation’s religious beliefs.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the decision could have very significant implications for future ligation from corporations regarding a variety of civil rights laws. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said they do not believe corporations would make wider claims in the future, but he never said why they wouldn’t.

This was the first major challenge to Affordable Care Act since the Supreme Court upheld most of the law in 2012. What does this ruling mean for "Obamacare," and does it open the door to other legal challenges to the law?

It is certainly possible that this will lead to other essential healthcare benefits in the Affordable Care Act being challenged. But this was not a constitutional challenge, and the Affordable Care Act will go on. This case is going to be more important for a wider range of other civil rights laws. What is really at stake here is the federal government’s ability to regulate how corporations treat their employees.

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