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Supreme Court exempts Hobby Lobby from Obamacare contraception mandate

Attempting to expand religious expression protections to small business owners without significantly disrupting the rules that govern for-profit corporations, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Obama administration must exempt closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby from a rule requiring large companies to help pay for their employees' birth control.

In a 5 to 4 decision, the court ruled that closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby are protected by Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The RFRA dictates that an individual's religious expression shouldn't be "substantially burdened" by a law unless there is a "compelling government interest."

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the contraception rule "would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations."

Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. -- two privately-held, for-profit companies -- sued the United States government over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide comprehensive health coverage (including contraception) or pay a fine. Hobby Lobby's owners, David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma, say they have strong objections based in their Christian faith to providing health care coverage for certain types of contraception. The Pennsylvania-based Hahn family, the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, had the same complaint.

The Obama administration already exempted nonprofits with religious affiliations, such as Catholic universities, from the contraception coverage rule.

Monday's ruling is a loss for reproductive rights advocates who have balked at the notion that some businesses can pick and choose which contraception methods to cover.

While it's a victory for Christian conservatives opposed to the contraception rule, the ruling skirts the broad ramifications that could have come from shielding all for-profit firms from laws that interfere with religious beliefs. Such a ruling, the administration argued, could have interfered with laws that ban gender discrimination, minimum wage and overtime laws, or mandated health coverage for vaccinations, to name a few.

Alito made several points to lay to rest concerns that corporations would take unfair of advantage of his ruling.

"In any event, our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate," he wrote. "Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them."

Furthermore, Alito wrote that it "seems unlikely" that corporate giants like IBM or General Electric would seek the same exemption granted to Hobby Lobby.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Alito's insistence that the ruling is narrow, calling it "a decision of startling breadth."

She slammed the ruling for accommodating for-profit corporations' religious beliefs, "matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners' religious faith--in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ."

Ginsburg also categorically rejected the notion that corporations, even closely-held ones, should be able to exercise religious freedoms: "The exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities," she wrote.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg in the dissent.

Reproductive rights advocates on Monday noted the widespread use of birth control -- 99 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives. They said that the way Alito applied his argument exclusively to the birth control rule was tantamount to discrimination against women.

"Singling women out specifically for discrimination in health care and otherwise is unacceptable," NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue told reporters Monday afternoon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday afternoon that the White House is still assessing the legal implications of the ruling, including what companies are actually covered by the decision.

"But we believe that the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits," Earnest said. While the White House will of course respect the Supreme Court's ruling, he added, "We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else."