Supreme Court

Justices say some businesses can ignore birth control mandate

WEB VOTE The Supreme Court ruled that, if they have religious objections, some corporations can opt out of the new healthcare-law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women. Right call?

McClatchy Washington Bureau

A divided Supreme Court on Monday extended religious-freedom protections to certain for-profit corporations, exempting them from providing birth-control services that are required under the 2010 healthcare law.

In a groundbreaking 5-4 decision, the court concluded that closely held corporations may claim religious rights similar to those enjoyed by individuals. The decision expands exemptions from the so-called contraceptive mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t affect other insurance provisions in the law, such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.

“Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them,” Justice Samuel Alito said, writing for the majority.

While the ruling struck a blow to the Affordable Care Act, it explicitly says the decision can’t be used as a “cloak” to mask “illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision one of “startling breadth” and stressed the targeted implications of the ruling on women.

“The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents,” Ginsburg wrote. “It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that [the healthcare law] would otherwise secure.”

In Florida, there are 26 Hobby Lobby stores — including one in Davie — with seven more planned throughout the state by the end of 2014. There are no Hobby Lobby stores in Miami, but one is scheduled to open in Kendale Lakes Plaza on July 18.

At least one Florida company filed suit in a case similar to Hobby Lobby’s, challenging the federal government’s plan to cover after-the-fact contraception costs like the morning after pill.

Tom Beckwith, the CEO and owner of Largo-based Beckwith Electric Co., said he filed the lawsuit because he was “not going to stab Jesus in the back.”

“I don’t believe in murder,” Beckwith said. “I’m a Christian and this is one of the big 10 [commandments],” he said.

While employees at his company — there are more than 100 — might disagree with his decision, he said that they understand that the lawsuit was filed for moral and not financial reasons.

Ave Marie University, a Catholic University in Southwest Florida, and the Archdiocese of Miami had also filed suit against the government’s regulation of contraception.

Though Monday’s decision related to for-profit companies, local religious non-profits were delighted by the ruling. Jim Towey, Ave Maria University's president, said he was “not even slightly surprised” by today’s decision, calling the requirement that religious organizations provide contraception a “head-scratcher from the beginning.”

In December 2013, Ave Maria’s case challenging the government’s contraception policy was temporarily suspended awaiting the outcome of the Hobby Lobby case. The university will now reopen its lawsuit following Monday's decision, Towey said.

Likewise, the Archdiocese of Miami released a statement that it is “grateful” for the Supreme Court’s decision, and will continue to fight its own case against providing contraception to employees.

“People do not give up their religious freedom when they open a family business,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski in the statement. “They should not have to check their values and religious convictions at the door when they enter the marketplace.”

The state of Florida was one of 20 states that filed an amicus brief in support of Hobby Lobby.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture maker, brought the legal challenge to the Supreme Court.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, who employ 13,000 people in more than 500 stores nationwide, claimed that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated their rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The latter law, created in 1993, says the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the action is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling purpose.

The court ruled that providing contraceptives without cost is not the “least restrictive” means to achieve its goal, thus violating the religious freedom law.

Employees from corporations with religious exemptions aren’t barred from seeking other insurance for contraceptives. The government, for one, could cover the free medications guaranteed under the contraceptive mandate.

“If the government wants to, on its own, go around providing people with benefits, that’s not something most of the plaintiffs object to,” Hobby Lobby lead counsel Mark Rienzi, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, said during a conference call afterward.

The response to the decision was immediate and appeared to fall largely along partisan lines. Democrats and liberal social groups criticized the decision as a step backward in protecting women’s health; Republicans and conservative social groups said it championed the protection of religious freedoms.

The highly anticipated ruling marks the first time the high court has taken up the Affordable Care Act since it upheld in June 2012 the law’s important mandate that most people have health insurance.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Monica Disare contributed to this report.

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