3Qs: Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision

In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled 5-4 that some for-profit companies with religious objections can avoid paying for employees’ contraceptive care, a requirement of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul. The ruling would apply to several “closely-held” companies including Hobby Lobby, a family-owned arts and crafts store, which challenged a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring companies with more than 50 employees to cover preventive care services.

In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that ruling applies only to contraceptives under the healthcare law and the Obama administration can find ways to provide women the birth control they want, including having the federal government or outside insurers pay. The White House said it is reviewing the ruling and would work with Congress to ensure women affected would get the coverage they require.

Here, Wendy Parmet, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law and associate dean for academic affairs, offers further insight into the significance of the case and what it could mean for the Affordable Care Act.

Why is the ruling significant?

The ruling is significant because it is the first time the justices found that a corporation has a right to exercise freedom of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We don’t really know what is going to happen now.

What are the implications of this ruling with regard to the religious freedom of corporations and similar exemptions?

This is an invitation for litigation. It potentially opens the door to other claims of religious exercise by corporations. For example, a corporation could say it doesn’t want to hire someone who is living with a person he or she is not married to because it is contrary to the corporation’s religious beliefs.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the decision could have very significant implications for future ligation from corporations regarding a variety of civil rights laws. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said they do not believe corporations would make wider claims in the future, but he never said why they wouldn’t.

This was the first major challenge to Affordable Care Act since the Supreme Court upheld most of the law in 2012. What does this ruling mean for “Obamacare,” and does it open the door to other legal challenges to the law?

It is certainly possible that this will lead to other essential healthcare benefits in the Affordable Care Act being challenged. But this was not a constitutional challenge, and the Affordable Care Act will go on. This case is going to be more important for a wider range of other civil rights laws. What is really at stake here is the federal government’s ability to regulate how corporations treat their employees.