Supreme Court ruling allows companies to claim religious exemption from the requirement to offer birth-control coverage in worker health plans

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a setback to the Obama administration Monday by ruling that the owners of private companies may refuse on religious grounds to offer employees insurance coverage for birth control.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court's conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama's signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom.

The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

Alito wrote that the birth control requirement was a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of the business owners who challenged it. The government can impose such a burden only when it relies on the "least restrictive means" to serve a compelling public interest.

"And the mandate plainly fails that test," Alito wrote.

The business owners, he wrote, "have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. ... By requiring [them] to arrange for such coverage, the … mandate demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs."

Two family-owned companies challenged the requirement: Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores with 13,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania-based cabinetmaker with about 950 workers. The companies specifically objected to offering emergency contraceptives such as Plan B and Ella.

At the Hobby Lobby store in Columbia on Monday, store officials declined to comment, but in the parking lot, shopper Barbara Jenkins, 48, of Damascus, said she didn't agree with the company's position or with the Supreme Court decision.

"As a woman, I think you should have a right to get contraception and any other female-specific care. I don't think [the court ruling is] right," Jerkins said.

She said Hobby Lobby officials "have to realize that they probably have people with different religious beliefs working for them," so to hold them all to one religion's beliefs "is not fair."

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described the majority opinion as one of "startling breadth," arguing that it would allow a broad swath of companies to "opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."

The decision was praised by conservatives on Capitol Hill as a victory for religious freedom in what they framed as a struggle with a White House that has repeatedly overstepped its authority.

"While in Ukraine during WWII, my mother saw churches burned by government agents because there was no freedom of religion," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress. "The Supreme Court's decision," he said, "upholds that fundamental freedom."

Democrats and women's rights groups countered that the ruling leaves it up to company owners to decide what types of medical costs should be covered by insurance in cases where the religious values of employers and employees may differ.

"For women, birth control isn't controversial," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. "The only controversy is that we're still fighting to have this basic health care covered by insurance."

In an email to supporters, Gov. Martin O'Malley argued that "no woman should have her health decisions made by her boss."

A White House spokesman and several Democrats on Capitol Hill suggested Congress could try to mitigate the decision's impact with legislation, but that outcome seemed unlikely given the partisan rancor the issues inspire.

Monday's decision is likely to influence pending court cases on a related matter — how the contraceptive requirement should apply to religious nonprofits. Among those cases is a lawsuit brought the Little Sisters of the Poor that is pending before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

As it wrote the rules implementing the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services limited the scope of the requirement for some religiously affiliated organizations, such as hospitals and universities. Those groups are not required to pay for contraceptive coverage themselves if they sign a form stating their objection.

Employees of those groups may continue to receive coverage for birth control, but it is paid for by the insurance companies — and in some cases the government — not the employer.