By Stephanie Haven and Michael Doyle McClatchy Washington Bureau.
A divided Supreme Court on Monday extended religious-freedom protections to certain for-profit corporations, exempting them from providing birth-control services that are required under the 2010 health care law.
In a groundbreaking 5-4 decision, the court concluded that closely held corporations may claim religious rights similar to those enjoyed by individuals.
The decision expands exemptions from the so-called contraceptive mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act. It doesn't affect other insurance provisions in the law, such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.
"Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them," Justice Samuel Alito said, writing for the majority.
While the ruling struck a blow to the Affordable Care Act, it explicitly says the decision can't be used as a "cloak" to mask "illegal discrimination as a religious practice."
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision one of "startling breadth" and stressed the targeted implications of the ruling on women.
"The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations' employees and covered dependents," Ginsburg wrote. "It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that (the health care law) would otherwise secure."
Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture maker, brought the legal challenge.
The owners of Hobby Lobby, who employ 13,000 people in more than 500 stores nationwide, claimed that the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate violated their rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The latter law, created in 1993, says the government "shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless the action is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling purpose.
The court ruled that providing contraceptives without cost is not the "least restrictive" means to achieve its goal, thus violating the religious freedom law.
Employees from corporations with religious exemptions aren't barred from seeking other insurance for contraceptives. The government, for one, could cover the free medications guaranteed under the contraceptive mandate.
"If the government wants to, on its own, go around providing people with benefits, that's not something most of the plaintiffs object to," Hobby Lobby lead counsel Mark Rienzi, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, said in a conference call afterward.
The response to the decision was immediate and appeared to fall largely along partisan lines. Democrats and liberal social groups criticized the decision as a step backward in protecting women's health; Republicans and conservative social groups said it championed the protection of religious freedoms.
"The government cannot unreasonably force Americans to set aside their beliefs simply because they go into business to provide for themselves, their families and their employees," according to a statement from Sarah Torre and Elizabeth Slattery, a religious-liberty policy analyst and legal analyst, respectively, for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.
Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House disagreed with the ruling and would work with Congress to ensure that employees in exempt corporations "have the same coverage ... as everyone else."
"The ruling allows the bosses of these women to essentially step in and say," he said, " 'Well, I have a religious concern, so you're not allowed to make your own decision about whether or not you'd like to benefit from these services. We're going to make sure that they aren't provided.' "
The looming midterm elections figured in some reactions.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder of how important it is for Democrats to keep hold of the Senate," said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, which backs Democratic female political candidates who favor abortion rights. "When the future of our judiciary branch and women's access to health care is at stake, we need every woman to get out and vote in November."
The highly anticipated ruling marks the first time the high court has taken up the Affordable Care Act since it upheld in June 2012 the law's important mandate that most people have health insurance.
The health care law sets minimum standards for the insurance packages offered by businesses that employ more than 50 people. The plans must cover certain preventive exams, immunizations and screenings for diseases such as diabetes.
They also must cover an array of contraceptive methods, including pills, diaphragms, intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives.
The founders of Hobby Lobby, who are Christians, said that at least part of the contraceptive mandate violated their religious freedoms, namely the conviction that life begins at conception, when an egg is fertilized.
As a result, Hobby Lobby officials objected to providing or paying for the contraceptive drugs known as Plan B and Ella.
The drugs, sometimes called the morning-after pill and the week-after pill, respectively, can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb. Anti-abortion advocates consider the medications tantamount to abortion.
"This lawsuit has wrongfully been depicted as a conflict between religious employers and women," said Hadley Heath Manning, the health policy director for the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative women's policy group.
"If the government wants to make birth control even more accessible, there are many other ways that it can do so without forcing employers with religious convictions to pay for abortifacients."