The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violated federal law by placing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when it required "closely held" private corporations such as Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. to cover certain forms of birth control in their employee health plans.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito held that this provision of the health care law, as applied to Hobby Lobby, ran afoul of the terms of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law signed by President Bill Clinton which says the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion," unless it has a "compelling" justification and has used "the least restrictive means" available.
"Under RFRA, a Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest, and we assume that the HHS regulations satisfy this requirement. But in order for the HHS mandate to be sustained," Alito continued, "it must also constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, and the mandate plainly fails that test. There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives."
Writing in dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg charged the majority with issuing "a decision of startling breadth." In her view, "the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations…can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
The Court's opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is available here.