Don’t read too much into this.
That was the message the Supreme Court tried to send Monday in ruling for three family-owned businesses whose owners claimed a religious objection to providing birth control coverage for their employees, as required under Obamacare when companies offer insurance.
The justices made clear what the decision was not: It was not an opening for companies to opt out of other health insurance coverage requirements, such as for blood transfusions and vaccinations.
It was not grounds for companies to use a religious objection to justify illegal discrimination against customers. And it was not a way for large, public corporations to get out of even the contraceptive requirement under Obamacare.
The ruling, a 5-4 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, sends a cultural and social signal about respecting religious belief, said Tom Goldstein, the founder of SCOTUSblog, which is widely read among court-watchers.
“But its practical consequences, I think, are going to be slim to none,” he said.
The three companies were a chain of about 500 craft stores owned by evangelical Christians, an Oklahoma bookstore owned by the same family, and a Pennsylvania cabinet maker owned by Mennonites.
They objected to a provision of the Affordable Care Act requirement that requires companies with more than 50 employees to cover contraceptives such as morning-after pills, diaphragms and IUDs.
The court found that those companies were exempt from the requirement under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993.
‘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,’ Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
Other claims of religious exemption have made headlines recently. In February, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse services to gays on religious grounds.
And the court did find that a for-profit company can assert religious freedom. Just because people decide to start a business doesn’t mean they have to set their religious views aside, the justices said.
But Alito specified that the ruling applied only to the contraceptive requirement and did not mean a business owner could get out of other insurance coverage requirements if those requirements conflicted with the owner’s religious beliefs.
“Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” he wrote.
The justices held that the 1993 law requires the government to use “the least restrictive means” in imposing a mandate such as the birth-control rule, and they said the government had clearly failed that test.
Alito all but drew a road map to a potential solution: The government already instructs insurance companies to pay for contraceptive coverage for employees of certain religious nonprofits, including churches and church charities.
“Under that accommodation, these women would still be entitled to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing,” Alito wrote.
A White House spokesman said the administration disagreed with the ruling, was trying to determine how many people were affected and would look for ways to make sure women had access to contraceptives.
The spokesman, Josh Earnest, said it was too early to know what the options were.
“But we believe that the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits,” he told reporters.
Some Republican members of Congress cast the ruling as a broad victory for religious liberty, and as evidence that Obamacare is intrusive and needs to be repealed.
A lawyer for Hobby Lobby, Lori Windham, said it was a “complete victory” for her clients, but she pointed to Alito’s language in saying that the impact would be limited beyond the roughly 50 family-owned companies that have brought similar claims.
“You still have to look at each case individually,” she told MSNBC.
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union said it found the ruling deeply troubling. It said freedom of religion does not mean business owners can impose their beliefs on employees in violation of the law.
“The court simply got it wrong,” said Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.
And some thought the ruling would still invite broader challenges from business interests based on religion.
Among them was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a dissent on behalf of the court’s four more liberal justices, including the other two women. She said it was a decision “of startling breadth,” using an “expansive notion of corporate personhood.”
What, she asked, about Jehovah’s Witnesses who object to transfusions? Scientologists who object to antidepressants? Certain Muslims, Jews and Hindus who object to medicine derived from pigs or pills coated with gelatin?
But the majority seemed to hang its ruling in part on the idea that the government already had an easy way out with the exemption for nonprofits. Goldstein, from SCOTUSblog, said it was unlikely the ruling would have a broad impact.
“I think it’s very narrow in practice,” he said. “The dissent is obviously very concerned. But I think very often the dissents really are hyperbolic.”
First published June 30 2014, 1:47 PM