The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Obamacare cannot force companies to pay for emergency contraceptive coverage for their employees that could lead to abortions, in violation of their religious beliefs.
The 5-4 ruling delivered a huge victory to conservatives who have worked for years to scale back the various mandates of the controversial healthcare law.
The Court decided that Obamacare cannot be used to require for-profit, closely held companies to provide certain birth control drugs and devices – such as morning after pills – that could cause abortion.
The case was brought by Hobby Lobby, a Oklahoma-based retail chain owned by the Green family. The Greens said they are willing to cover 16 of the 20 birth control methods mandated by Obamacare to its employees, but not four others because the risk of abortion goes against their religious beliefs.
The company argued before the Court that the Obamacare mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says the government cannot place burdens on the exercise of freedom of religion.
“Providing these objectionable drugs and devices violates the deeply held religious convictions of the Greens – the sole owners of their family businesses – that life begins at conception,” the company’s website says. “Yet refusing to comply with the federal mandate would subject them to an untenable choice of paying substantial fines or discontinuing the outstanding and affordable health insurance plan currently provided to their valued employees.”
The majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito agreed with that argument. According to SCOTUS Blog, the Obama administration failed to show that the broad contraception mandate is the least restrictive way of advancing its interest in ensuring access to birth control. The Court also ruled that the decision applies only to the contraception mandate, not other insurance mandates, such as those involving vaccinations.
Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the government could pay for this coverage if it wants to make it available, but cannot compel a company to do so.
The decision deals a big hit to the Obama administration, which defended its interpretation of the law as something that forces companies to provide all manner of birth control methods to workers.
Republicans in Congress welcomed the high court’s ruling.
“Religious liberty will remain intact and all Americans can stay true to their faith without fear of big government intervention or punishment,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “Our nation was founded on the principle of freedom, and with this decision, America will continue to serve as a safe haven for those looking to exercise religious liberty.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the ruling a victory for religious freedom and a defeat for the Obama administration’s “Big Government objectives.”
“The mandate overturned today would have required for-profit companies to choose between violating their constitutionally-protected faith or paying crippling fines, which would have forced them to lay off employees or close their doors,” he said.
“The president’s health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy,” he added. “We must repeal it and enact better solutions that start with lowering Americans’ health care costs.”
The case is Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell. She replaced Kathleen Sebelius earlier this year – prior to that, the case was Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby.
The case is second big blow to Obama from the Supreme Court in as many weeks. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that President Obama’s 2012 “recess” appointments were not legal, because Obama made them when the Senate was not in recess.
That ruling prompted Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to say the decision was the biggest rebuke to a sitting president since 1974, when the Court decided unanimously that President Nixon must release the Watergate tapes.
Also related to abortion, the Court last week struck down a Massachusetts law that said people can’t stand on a public road or sidewalk within 35 feet of an abortion clinic.
The Supreme Court on Monday limited the power of public-sector unions to compel employees to pay contributions, dealing a setback to public-sector unions.
But the 5-4 decision, written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, wasn’t as sweeping as some union advocates had feared.
“This is a substantial obstacle to expanding public employee unions, but it does not gut them,” SCOTUSblog’s Tom Goldstein wrote.
Unions had been concerned that the court would strike down laws in 26 states requiring teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public-sector employees to pay dues to the unions that negotiate contracts on their behalf, even if the workers don’t want to become union members.
The court hedged somewhat, but the decision is still a setback for public-sector unions. In a 5-4 decision written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the court “recognized a category of ‘partial public employees’ who could not be required to contribute to union fees,” according to SCOTUSblog. Unions worried the court would rule all public employees could not be forced to pay, which would dry up their ranks and their coffers.
“It remains possible that in a later case the Court will overturn its prior precedent and forbid requiring public employees to contribute to union bargaining. But today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence,” Goldstein wrote.
The case, Harris v. Quinn, stemmed from a challenge in Illinois involving in-home care providers. Illinois uses Medicaid funds to pay in-home care workers, but turnover was high at the low-paying jobs. In response, more than 20,000 in-home car workers organized and joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), after executive orders from Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn, both Democrats, classified them as “public employees.”
The National Right to Work Foundation brought a challenge to Quinn in 2010, arguing workers who didn’t want to participate in the union shouldn’t have to pay the dues.