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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And Robert Siegel. The Supreme Court wrapped up its docket of cases today with a big ruling on the mixture of business and religion. The ruling strikes down an important part of President Obama's health care law. That's the requirement that all insurance plans cover birth control. The company in question had refused to follow that requirement because it conflicted with the corporate owner's religious beliefs. The court's vote was 5 to 4. Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The court's ruling came in a case brought by the Hobby Lobby Corporation, a chain of 500 arts and craft stores that employs 16,000 people. Its owners object to two forms of birth control, IUDs and morning-after pills, because they consider those to be an early form of abortion. But today's decision would apply to all forms of contraception and, potentially, other medical procedures and government regulations. The court, however, sought to limit the effect of its decision. Writing for the court's conservative majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that the ruling applies only to closely-held corporations - those that do not have public shareholders.
As the dissenters pointed out, however, closely held does not mean small. Many of America's biggest multi-billion dollar corporations are closely held - Cargill with $137 billion in revenue and 140,000 employees, the Koch Brothers corporation, Koch industries, with $115 billion in revenue, Dell Computers, Bechtel, Mars Candy, Toys "R" US, Heinz foods, etc. Today's decision was not based on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Alito conceded that the First Amendment would not cover this situation.
But he noted that after the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the First Amendment provides no religious exception for a law applied equally to everyone, Congress stepped in to heighten protections for religious groups. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, says that when a law imposes a substantial burden on religion, it must be justified as serving a compelling government interest. And the government must use the least restrictive means to achieve its goals. Here, said Alito, the government has other ways to provide birth control coverage.
The government can simply pay for the benefit itself. Or it can do what it did for religious nonprofits - arrange to have the insurance companies eat the cost of the birth control coverage because doing that is so much cheaper than paying for many more pregnancies. The White House said today it is still assessing how to proceed. The nation's major medical associations had all supported birth control coverage requirement.
Jeanne Conry, immediate-past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, noted that birth control devices like those at issue in today's case, IUDs, are for many women the best and safest method of birth control. And they are often used not to prevent pregnancy, but to control abnormal bleeding and to prevent hysterectomies.
JEANNE CONRY: The practical impact is that this inhibits my ability to provide the best care for women. And this clearly puts an employer in the exam room with me and my patient. And that's untenable.
TOTENBERG: Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, noted that about a third of working women can't afford birth control at some time during their lives.
CECILE RICHARDS: This decision now says that their boss, because of his own personal feelings about birth control - his feelings about birth control, trump their own need for this benefit.
TOTENBERG: Justice Alito cast the decision as limited in scope. He seemed to suggest, for instance, that it would not cover religious objections to vaccines and blood transfusions or religious objections to complying with civil rights laws. But legal experts disagreed about whether the decision is, in fact, so limited. Cornell law professor, Michael Dorf, notes that Alito, in referring to anti-discrimination laws, referred only to race discrimination.
MICHAEL DORF: That leaves out sex discrimination, age discrimination, disability discrimination and, perhaps most significantly, sexual orientation discrimination, where there are cases in the pipeline.
TOTENBERG: Cardozo law professor, Marci Hamilton, contends that by expanding the reach of what is a substantial burden on religion, the court has invited much more litigation and helped create an entirely new and entitled group of religious believers.
MARCI HAMILTON: In the United States, we're experiencing an insatiable drive for religious freedom. And in that atmosphere, we will see plenty of people coming forward.
TOTENBERG: But University of Virginia law professor, Douglas Laycock, has a very different view. He sees today's decision as extremely narrow.
DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: This is about businesses, where every owner agrees on a religious commitment and has demonstrated that commitment over time. And there just aren't many such cases.
TOTENBERG: Notre Dame law professor, Richard Garnett, agrees in part. But he adds that today's ruling gives a new expansiveness to RFRA.
RICHARD GARNETT: Justice Alito is saying now, RFRA means what it says. RFRA expresses Congress's commitment to a fairly broad accommodation principle and to the idea that the government, when it can accommodate religious freedom, it should.
TOTENBERG: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote today's principal dissent. She and Justice Sotomayor would've ruled that for-profit corporations are not covered by RFRA. Justices Breyer and Kagan would not have reached that question one way or the other. All four agreed that the government was justified in requiring that commercial enterprises cover birth control. Ginsberg ridiculed the notion that today's opinion is limited. Where's the stopping point to letting the government pay, she asked - supposing a defense in employer's religious belief to pay the minimum wage or to accord women equal pay. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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