Conservatives celebrated a victory over Obamacare on Monday after the supreme court ruled that some companies should be allowed a religious exemption from rules requiring them to include all forms of contraception in employee health policies.
In a judgment with significant implications for the legal rights of corporations, a narrow majority of five justices argued that “closely held” businesses such as the family-run Hobby Lobby chain of stores, which brought the test case, enjoyed the same religious protections under law as individuals.
Hobby Lobby’s Christian owners and others like them will now be free to remove four controversial contraception methods from insurance plans provided to their 13,000 staff, claiming they amount to a form of abortion because they take effect after the point of fertilisation.
The wider implications for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) were less immediately clear, with critics arguing the ruling could open the floodgates to companies seeking other religious exemptions for treatments such as blood transfusions and vaccines, but conservative justices insisting their “very specific” ruling should not set a precedent.
Either way, the judgement in favour of Hobby Lobby – an Oklahoma-based arts-and-crafts chain of about 600 stores founded by David and Barbara Green – is the most significant legal setback for Obama’s politically contested health reforms since the supreme court first upheld its right to force individuals to find insurance cover in 2012.
Lower courts were previously split over the contraception mandate, with the 10th circuit court of appeals voting in favor of Hobby Lobby in an earlier decision, and the third circuit court of appeals ruling against Conestoga Wood.
The second case was brought by Conestoga Wood, a cabinet-making business run by a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania. They, too, believe certain contraceptives are abortifacients, even though scientists have repeatedly disputed these claims.
“We in the Hahn family want to thank everyone who supported us during this lawsuit. We wholeheartedly affirm what the supreme court made clear today – that Americans don’t have to surrender their freedom when they open a family business,” said Conestoga Wood president and CEO Anthony Hahn in a statement.
The ruling now forces Obama’s department of health and human services (HHS) to decide whether to pay for contraception in such cases out of the public purse instead, risking a fresh confrontation with Republican critics of the law in Congress.