In a stinging rebuke to President Barack Obama’s health-care requirement that women are entitled to contraceptives, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday this provision violates the constitutionally protected religious freedom of family-owned businesses.
“President Obama believes that women should make personal health-care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them,” his spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Women will suffer, claimed the White House, as some business owners can now deny women birth-control benefits required by law. “Owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits,” said Mr. Earnest.
But conservatives hailed the ruling as a victory for religious freedom in the face of what they regard as Mr. Obama’s efforts to erode constitutional rights and impose socialist-like welfare such as universal mandatory health care.
Obamacare is already a key issue as Republicans battle to wrest control of the Senate this fall and Monday’s ruling will fuel that campaign.
“The Supreme Court handed our nation a landmark victory for religious liberty,” said Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Alberta-born Tea Party favourite and a possible presidential candidate in 2016. “Americans, contrary to what the Obama administration attempted to impose, have a right to live and work in accordance to their conscience and can’t be forced to surrender their religious freedom once they open a business.”
The 5-4 decision – with all three of the women on the nation’s highest court among those opposed to the ruling – outlawed the requirement that all companies with more than 50 employees must provide their employees a basic health-care package that includes contraceptive care.
The decision, which applies only to family-owned or other closely-held companies, upholds a challenge from owners who claimed that being forced to provide contraception – especially the so-called “Day-After” pills that some say is abortion – violates their religious convictions which are constitutionally protected.
The court heard two cases brought by Hobby Lobby Stores Ltd., an Oklahoma-based art-and-crafts company owned by evangelical Christians (with 13,000 employees), and by Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania company owned by a Mennonite couple (with about 1,000 employees).
The sweeping health-care law – the President’s most significant domestic achievement – already exempted churches and religious-run entities from the contraceptive mandate.
But Monday’s ruling will reignite the political firestorm over Obamacare.
Within minutes of the Supreme Court decision partisans were firing off accusations.
In its narrowest sense, the ruling only allows closely-held corporations – those owned by five or fewer individuals – to refuse to provide the contraception coverage required under the law.
Rights groups were torn.
“This is a deeply troubling decision,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that freedom does not include the right to impose beliefs on others. In its ruling today, the court simply got it wrong.”
In writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stressed it was a narrow ruling. “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,” he wrote, making clear that the decision only applied to certain types of contraception, not for instance, blood transfusions and other medical treatments deemed wrong by some religions.
Justice Alito also said Congress or the administration could simply pay for contraception or provide the same opt-out that Obamacare allows for churches and non-profits.
A Reuters poll – taken before the court ruling – found a clear majority of Americans opposed letting employers decide, even based on their religious convictions, what type of contraceptives, if any, would be included in company-provided health-care coverage.
Monday’s ruling had no impact on plans offered to individuals under the federal and state run health-care marketplaces. Nor will it affect the majority of Americans covered by plans from publicly traded companies and governments.
The Affordable Care Act – widely called Obamacare – has become a central issue in this fall’s midterm elections.
Republicans were quick to cite the ruling as evidence of over-reach by the president. The “Supreme Court decision makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate.
But Democrats were already moving to add contraception coverage for those women who will be affected by the decision.
“If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will,” said Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, vowing to “fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room.”
The case was the first time the Supreme Court had dealt with the Affordable Care Act since it upheld as constitutional the requirement that everyone either buy coverage, be provided with coverage or pay a penalty.
The 5-4 decision split the court on ideological lines with the four dissenting justices being those regarded as liberals on the court.