Can your company refuse to offer health insurance coverage to employees for birth control if such coverage conflicts with the religious beliefs of the company’s leaders?
In certain cases, yes it can, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 30 in one of the most highly anticipated court rulings of the past few years. (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, No. 13-354)
The court said closely held private companies can’t be forced to cover certain types of contraceptives for their workers if company leaders have a sincere religious objection.
The 5-4 decision—led by the conservative wing of the Supreme Court—deals a blow to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), which includes a provision that requires employer-provided health insurance to cover birth control without a copay.
Two family-based companies that run their businesses on religious principles—Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties—objected to the ACA provision, saying certain contraceptive measures (including the “morning after” pill) are equal to abortion. The two companies argued that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) gives them the right to refuse to offer such coverage.
The RFRA prevents the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling government interest.”
Impact on employers: Don't expect to use this ruling as get-out-of-the-ACA-free card. As a Ford Harrison law firm report noted, "the court's decision is not a one-size-fits-all exemption from the ACA's minimum essential coverage, or other insurance requirements. The Court's decision applies solely to closely-held for-profit corporations that can demonstrate sincere religious objections to providing mandated contraceptive services under the RFRA."
The report said that future regulations are expected to provide a procedure for for-profit corporations to use to obtain an exemption from providing contraceptive coverage, which will likely be similar to the non-profit entity exemptions allowed under current law.
However, some experts say the decision could open the possibility that employers will challenge other parts of the ACA—and, in fact, other federal employment laws—on the grounds of religious exemption.
“A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority. “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.”
You can read this and other Supreme Court decisions at www.supremecourt.gov/opinions.