In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the Supreme Court of the United States Monday ruled that religious rights of two Christian company owners trumped the rights of its employees to receive full contraceptive coverage promised by mandates in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“The implications of this decision could be extremely broad,” says Steve Friedman, co-chair, benefits practice group and health care reform at Littler Mendelson. “This decision allows religious beliefs to dictate the extent to which closely held companies must comply with various provisions of the Affordable Care Act. There are certainly other mandates in the ACA apart from those dealing with contraception that could be claimed to be objectionable by particular employers.”

Sharon Cohen, a principal with Buck Consultants, says the ruling really only addresses four specific forms of contraception of the many approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

She says some of ruling’s language suggests that while there is an exemption from the mandate for religious employers, the Supreme Court believes Health and Human Services should also be able to provide a work-around for these closely held companies.

In terms of the Monday ruling affecting publicly held employers, Cohen adds that she believes it is highly impractical as it would require shareholders to agree to striking the coverage. “But we all know, just because something is impractical, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” she says. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

R. Scott Oswald, managing principal at The Employment Law Group, confirms saying employers still can’t opt out of workplace laws for any reason, including religious belief. 

“It’s vital that both employers and employees understand this: Hobby Lobby does not, for instance, make it legal for employers to discriminate against women workers based on a company owner’s beliefs,” he says. “Employers who test this idea will run smack into Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Supreme Court will show them no sympathy.” 

He points to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “eloquent” dissent, in which she cites many real-life cases where employers have dressed up workplace discrimination as a kind of religious freedom.   

“This is a serious and ongoing danger, and I fear that the publicity around Hobby Lobby will embolden such people,” Oswald says.  “But the statutes that protect employees are clear, and both the administration and the courts are committed to enforcing them — as is our entire society. Hobby Lobby doesn’t change any of that.”

Also see: 10 ACA issues employers need information on

The decision stems from a lawsuit by two family-owned companies, Oklahoma-based craft store, Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based cabinetry specialist Conestoga Wood Specialties. Both challenged the insurance requirement for certain employee birth control devices and methods as a violation of a 1993 religious-freedom law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“Under the standard that [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] prescribes, the HHS contraceptive mandate is unlawful,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.

However, Justice Ginsburg warns in her dissent, along with the three other opposing Justices, that the ruling that would have wide repercussions and “untoward effects.”

“Although the court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private,” she writes. “In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Health Subcommittee Chairman Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) lauded the ruling Monday, saying “today’s decision is a welcome victory for religious freedom.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, says it was a hard-fought victory to get emergency contraception included in the Affordable Care Act. “Women are already benefiting, we are seeing a great uptick in the benefit. But there are some politicians, and now judges, dragging us back into the 1950s,” she says. “We’re looking for equal coverage for all women.”

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, condemned the ruling, saying “the Supreme Court has issued a ruling that removes women who work at some companies from the decision making process about their own care and hands those very personal choices over to boardroom executives and human resources departments. While we firmly believe that every American should have the ability to practice his or her own faith, we cannot ignore the interests and the health of our nation’s women.”

Friedman warns that other types of statutes could conceivably be overturned to a limited extent on account of objections from religious business owners, including child labor laws, the Family Medical Leave Act and others. “It will be interesting to see if this victory by a religious business owner opens the floodgates to further types of exceptions in other areas of law,” he says. 

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