In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held today that for-profit closely held companies do not have to provide a full range of contraceptives (including four methods that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus) to their employees at no cost pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”). Religious employers, such as churches were already exempt from the contraceptive mandate, and certain not-for-profit organizations could also be exempt under certain circumstances.
The case stems from three closely held for-profit companies filing lawsuits against the government to invalidate the provisions of the ACA which require employers to provide contraceptive coverages to their employees at no cost. The owners of three companies had sincere Christian beliefs that life starts at the moment of conception, and that the mandate required by the ACA violated their religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and First Amendment. While the decision goes into detail about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (which prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest”) and the Free Exercise Clause, the basis of the Court’s decision lies in the fact that companies and their owners can exercise their religious rights in the form of a for-profit company and that the government could establish a less restrictive means of providing contraceptives, even by paying for such contraceptives to the employees.
Note the holding of the Court does not seem to suggest that any religious beliefs could be used to seek exemption from the ACA, as it carves out this narrow exception, so other proposed beliefs, such as same-sex marriage possibly would not be allowed by the Court under future rulings, and certainly discrimination based on race but cloaked as religious would not be tolerated as well. Nor does the Court discuss the impact of this ruling with respect to publicly traded or largely held companies.
Read the Court’s Opinion here