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Supreme Court rules against birth control mandate for closely-held companies

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Landmark case upholds religious objections, denting one of President Obama's most controversial policies

Supreme Court at night
Supreme Court at night

One of the most controversial portions of President Obama's overhaul of the US healthcare system in 2010 was the so-called "birth control mandate," which required that companies that offer medical insurance in America also cover some of their employees' birth control costs. A handful of organizations, most notably the US Council of Catholic Bishops and the crafts supply retail chain Hobby Lobby opposed the requirement on religious grounds (some religious groups view some forms of birth control similarly to abortion, which they also oppose). Hobby Lobby, along with over 80 other groups, sued the government over the decision.

Today, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, and by extension, some of the other religious objectors. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court invoked the US Constitution's First Amendment right to freedom of religion, saying businesses that are "closely held" — those owned mainly by a family or close-knit group of individuals as opposed to many different shareholders — didn't have to cover intrauterine devices (IUDs) or morning-after pills. As the majority opinion states: "Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them." The decision marks a major setback for the Obama administration, which had sought to broker compromise on the issue, and implements new policies on some of the most significant reproductive technologies of the 20th century.

But the court was also careful to note that its ruling doesn't extend to mandatory coverage of other medical procedures that may have religious objections, such as vaccinations or blood transfusions, writing: "This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates ... must necessarily fall if they conflict with employer's religious beliefs." The court also clearly stated that the US government could pick up the costs of birth control for those employers who didn't provide it. According to SCOTUS Blog, the US government is likely to do just that in the wake of this ruling.

The White House, for its part, condemned the ruling shortly after it came down. As Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, according to Talking Points Memo: "Today's decision jeopardizes the health of women that are employed by these companies," and adding. "We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage and vital health services as everyone else."