WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court advanced the cause of religious freedom Monday in the most closely watched case of its term, ruling that companies cannot be forced to offer insurance coverage for birth control methods they equate with abortion.
The 5-4 decision by the court's conservative majority, over the vehement objections of liberal justices, dealt a blow to President Obama's health care law two years after the court came within one vote of striking it down as unconstitutional.
It represented the second consecutive victory at the court for the religious right. Last month, the court upheld the centuries-old tradition of opening government meetings with a prayer, even when nearly all the prayers are Christian.
With its combination of controversial issues -- religion, abortion, contraception, the health care law, business rights and government regulations -- the case had emerged as the most controversial of the term that began in October. Groups on both sides of the debate pitting religious freedom against reproductive rights had inundated the court with briefs.
In the end, the conservatives led by Justice Samuel Alito ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 protects closely held for-profit corporations -- those controlled by a limited number of shareholders -- from the law's so-called "contraception mandate" because it burdens their exercise of religion.
"A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends," Alito said. "Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies."
But the court stopped short of a sweeping assertion that corporations can practice religion in the same way individuals can under the First Amendment. The majority limited its decision to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"If the owners comply with the ... mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price -- as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies," Alito said. "If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would."
The majority claimed that its decision should not deny contraceptives to women employed by the companies, because the administration already has devised a work-around for religious non-profits in which insurers, not employers, would provide the coverage. But that accommodation has been challenged by many religious non-profits as inadequate.
The court's liberal bloc, including its three female justices, denounced the decision for denying free coverage of all birth control methods to the employees of objecting companies -- in this case, the giant Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp,. a Mennonite-owned cabinet maker.
Those justices, led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, warned that if some companies can avoid covering contraceptives, others could seek religious waivers for other types of health care, such as vaccines or blood transfusions.
"Today's potentially sweeping decision minimizes the government's compelling interest in uniform compliance with laws governing workplaces -- in particular, the Affordable Care Act," Ginsburg said in a dissent read from the bench. "It discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt-outs impose on others -- in particular, employees who do not share their employer's religious beliefs."
The ruling was hailed by Conestoga CEO Anthony Hahn. "We wholeheartedly affirm what the Supreme Court made clear today — that Americans don't have to surrender their freedom when they open a family business," Hahn said. "All Americans, including family business owners, must be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of government punishment."
While the ruling represents the first legal setback for the health care law since the court upheld it in 2012 by a 5-4 ruling, it will not affect the broader aspects of the law -- its extension of coverage to millions of needy Americans or its requirements that most others buy insurance from state or federal marketplaces.
The more important legal precedent is the court's endorsement of religious rights for the owners of some profit-making companies, who had complained they were being forced to pay for forms of contraception that they equated with abortion.
The contraceptive requirement remains the subject of more than 80 lawsuits across the country. Federal appeals courts had split three-to-three on the rights of for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.
Under the health care law, most companies with more than 50 employees who do not provide the coverage face fines of $100 per day per employee. That could cost Hobby Lobby $475 million a year for its 13,000 workers. It would be much less expensive to drop health coverage altogether — $2,000 per employee per year, or $26 million.
Religious organizations such as churches, synagogues and mosques are exempt from the rule. Non-profit groups with religious affiliations, such as universities and charities, are allowed to sign over the coverage to private insurers -- a compromise that many are fighting in court because they feel tainted by the process.
The companies and groups asserting their religious claims say that intrauterine devices (IUDs) and morning-after pills cause abortions by blocking a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Groups that lobby for reproductive rights contend the drugs and devices prevent fertilization from occurring, which can lead to unwanted pregnancies and surgical abortions.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionthat corporations have free speech rights and, therefore, can spend freely in federal elections. But the court had not addressed their First Amendment rights to exercise religion.