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July 1, 2014

Judges: Religious rights trump birth control rule

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that some companies with religious objections can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the first time the high court has declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.

The justices’ 5-4 decision, splitting conservatives and liberals, means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under the health insurance plans of objecting companies.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion, over a dissent from the four liberal justices, that forcing companies to pay for methods of women’s contraception to which they object violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He said the ruling is limited and there are ways for the administration to ensure women get the birth control they want.

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the decision creates health risks for women, and he said Congress should take action to make sure they get coverage.

“President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them,” Earnest said. “Today’s decision jeopardizes the health of the women who are employed by these companies.”

Contraception is among a range of preventive services that must be provided at no extra charge under the health care law that Obama signed in 2010. Nearly 30 million women receive birth control as a result of the health law, the government has said.

Benefits experts say they expect little impact from the ruling because employers use health benefits to recruit and retain workers. But one constitutional law scholar, Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University, cautioned that more than 80 percent of U.S. corporations are closely held and she said they could “now be able to discriminate against their employees.”

Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts cast the pivotal Supreme Court vote that saved the law in the midst of Obama’s campaign for re-election. On Monday, Roberts sided with the four justices who would have struck down the law in its entirety, holding in favor of the religious rights of closely held corporations, like the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-craft stores that challenged the contraceptives provision.

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