In today's 5-4 decision, a majority of the justices took the side of family-run businesses, including the craft store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., whose owner said he regards some forms of contraception as immoral.
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The ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. carves a hole in President Obama's biggest legislative accomplishment, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court upheld two years ago. More broadly, the decision marks an expansion of corporate rights, saying that for-profit companies, like people, can claim religious freedoms under federal law.
Safeguarding the religious rights of corporations "protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
Alito's majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.
Ginsburg said the ruling may foster employer objections to other types of health care coverage, including blood transfusions and vaccines, or even let companies try to opt out of gender discrimination laws.
Reaction to the ruling was swift on both sides of the issue. The National Health Law Program issued a release calling the decision "wrong and dangerous."
"Despite the fact that ensuring access to family planning is settled medical practice and solid public policy, the Court has taken the wrong path, essentially allowing select businesses to impose their beliefs on their employees' health care," said Elizabeth Taylor, the program's executive director.
The Independent Women's Forum applauded the ruling, calling it "a victory for anyone who believes in limited government and freedom of conscience rights or religious liberty."
"This lawsuit has wrongfully been depicted as a conflict between religious employers and women, but the real question before the Court was whether there are limits to what government can compel from its citizens and if we are still a country that believes in freedom of conscience," said Hadley Heath Manning, the organization's director of health policy.