Religious rights have been expressly enhanced under a US Supreme Court ruling which permits private companies who oppose paying for contraception on religious grounds may do so.
It is the first time such a ruling has been made and it has opened a raft of questions for lawyers and others as to how far the ruling may go and just what it will mean for other potential exemptions from Obamacare in what is the most significant ruling for conservatives in many years.
The ruling was a 5-4 majority verdict.
The LA Times reports that the majority did not spell out how far the new religious exemption might reach, leading the four dissenters and many outside legal experts to predict it would open the door for religiously devout business owners to seek similar exemptions from antidiscrimination laws and other federal mandates.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, disputed that interpretation, emphasizing that the decision addressed only the contraceptive mandate, not other types of insurance-coverage mandates. “Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” he wrote.
Ironically, the ruling may have limited impact on the subject immediately at issue: the contraceptive coverage required by President Obama’s healthcare law. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote for the majority, noted that the administration already had found alternative ways to guarantee contraceptive coverage to women who worked for explicitly religious nonprofit organizations and said that compromise would work in the case of for-profit companies as well. Alito suggested that too.
Nevertheless, the ruling, along with a second case decided Monday, may signal a new era of legal exemptions to government programs. The pair of decisions handed down on the final day of the court’s term — both written by Alito — afforded new rights to conservatives who wish to opt out of what they view as liberal government rules.
In the contraceptive case, owners of closely held for-profit companies who object to the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act won the right to opt out if they have a “sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.” In a separate organized labor case from Illinois, the court said home healthcare workers had a free-speech right to avoid paying union fees if they didn’t want to.
Alito brushed aside arguments that the court should not extend religious freedom rights to corporations. “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by humans to achieve desired ends,” he wrote. “And protecting the free-exercise rights” of corporations such as the ones that brought the current case “protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.”