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Supreme Court rules in favor of religious freedom in Hobby Lobby case

Published: Monday, June 30 2014 7:50 a.m. MDT

Demonstrator react to hearing the Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014. The Supreme Court says corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday held that Congress’ nearly unanimous support for religious freedom extends to for-profit corporations.

The 5-4 ruling found that the employee health plans of for-profit companies do not have to cover all forms of federally approved contraception, mandated under the Affordable Care Act, if company owners have religious objections.

The justices said the ruling applies only to birth control and does not mean religion could be used to justify illegal discrimination against employees or to opt out of covering blood transfusions or vaccinations that might conflict with an owner's religious beliefs.

The case pitted the Obama administration against the faith-based convictions of the owners of two for-profit businesses: Hobby Lobby, an craft store chain; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a kitchen cabinetry maker.

At the heart of both cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by a nearly unanimous Congress in 1993, as attorneys for both firms claimed the law's provisions balancing government initiatives against religious freedom applied to corporations as well as individuals. Hobby Lobby contended that daily fines of $1.3 million for not complying with the mandate would be a "substantial burden" under the religious freedom law; the government argued such fines were justified because of the public benefits the health care law provides.

"The Supreme Court has reaffirmed what our family has always believed, that America is a country founded on and sustained by religious liberty," Hobby Lobby co-founder Barbara Green said in a video statement released after the decision.

"It's been a long journey, but an important one for our family and for those who wish to be guided in all areas of their life — including their businesses — by faith and conscience," Green said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the ruling "jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies. … We believe that owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits."

The government had appealed a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling granting the owners of Hobby Lobby — the Green family, who are evangelical Christians — an injunction against enforcing the contraception mandate. And the Hahn family, Mennonites who own Conestoga Wood, had appealed a 3rd Circuit Court denial of their request for an injunction. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for both cases on March 25.

The court's ruling will also impact around 48 other lawsuits filed by for-profit corporations against the government over the requirement that their employee health plans cover contraception. The plaintiffs all claim that providing artificial birth control to their employees violates the owners' religious beliefs.

Some owners, like the Green family, specifically object to providing drugs under the government's plan that they believe induce abortion, including the "morning after" pill, called Plan B, and Ella, described as a "week after" pill.

Also watching the outcome of the cases are religious-affiliated nonprofit organizations, such as schools, hospitals and charities. The government has been sued by 51 religious nonprofits over the contraception mandate. A total of 25 injunctions against the HHS mandate have been granted to nonprofit organizations so far, with five injunctions denied, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby as well as several nonprofit plaintiffs.

On the for-profit side, Becket reports, 40 injunctions have been granted and six denied.

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