On June 30, 2014 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a controversial 5-4 decision regarding the Affordable Care Act provision mandating that insurance policies cover contraceptives without charge to the insured. The Court ruled that Hobby Lobby, Inc. a corporation which owns a number of arts and crafts stores can refuse to provide health insurance coverage to employees for some forms of birth control. The company, deemed to be a “closely held” corporation, is owned by a family of devout evangelical Christians who objected on religious grounds to providing health insurance which would pay for certain types of birth control, specifically intrauterine devices and morning-after pills.
The Supreme Court’s decision is limited to the requirement under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraceptives at no cost as one of a list of women’s preventative health services.
Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated that it is not necessarily the case that an insurance coverage mandate will be struck down if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. This is a narrow decision which applies to companies which are “closely held” or “family-owned” and where the religious identity of the company is strongly tied to the owner’s religious beliefs. The court cautioned against concern that this decision would allow employers to opt out of covering other medical procedures like blood transfusions.
In addition to the controversial religious aspects of the decision its real significance may lie in the fact that this is the first time the Court has ruled that a for-profit business can hold religious beliefs. The real struggle in the future is likely to be in determining what it takes to be a “closely held” business with sincerely held religious belief. What determines a company’s status as closely held is a creature of state law, and some states do not define or even use that term. What is clear is that this decision has moved the discussion from family owned businesses and the proverbial “Mom and Pop” operation to a large, profitable company. The Court’s majority was convinced that the management of Hobby Lobby was concentrated in a small enough group of people with the same religious beliefs to support their refusal to provide the mandated coverage on religious grounds. The question now is what the future implications of this decision might be, not only with respect to the ACA but in connection with other laws against which a religious objection might be lodged.