At the heart of the two-year legal battle between Hobby Lobby's owners and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a single sentence from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).
"Governments," the law reads, "should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification."
In a 5–4 ruling today, the Supreme Court decided the federal government failed to live up to that standard.
At issue was a section of the Affordable Care Act which requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide health care insurance. In implementing the law, HHS named 20 kinds of contraception that needed to be covered by employers. But the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, whose cases were decided together today, considered four of those contraceptives potential abortifacients due to the way they can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in a mother's womb. Their refusal to pay for those four methods meant they faced millions of dollars in fines.
That violated RFRA, wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion, because it penalizes the religious beliefs of the Green family, evangelical Christians who own Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain with 500 stores and more than 13,000 employees, and the Hahn family, Mennonites whose company employs more than 1,000 employees in five factories across the country.
While the case was decided 5–4, the opinions that accompanied the court's decision also signal that seven of the nine justices agree that businesses can make religious liberty claims in court—an important ruling, said Joshua Hawley, senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"The opinion was right on the money … that the government is required to accommodate those folks and not violate their religious beliefs," Hawley said. "That is exactly the kind of coverage and protection that the law is supposed to give, and the court reaffirmed that today. It's quite targeted and modest, but firm, and for people of religious conviction this is a great victory."
In refusing to comply with the mandate, Hobby Lobby faced an estimated $475 million in fines, according to court documents.
"If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would," Alito said.
A familiar and narrow majority comprised of Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Chief Justice John Roberts ruled in favor of the companies and their owners. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Ginsburg read portions of her dissent from the bench in a gesture that is reserved for occasions of sharp disagreement among the justices.
A key issue in the case was the for-profit status of the companies, since HHS had already created a way for religious nonprofits to obtain an exemption from the "contraceptive mandate." But the court majority ruled that RFRA does apply to for-profit corporations, at least to "closely held" firms, which are often owned by a few family members.
They also ruled that since the government had an alternate plan for providing contraception coverage to employees of religious nonprofits, it had a workable alternative to mandated coverage that was less restrictive on the companies and their owners.
"We hold that the regulations that impose this obligation violate RFRA, which prohibits the Federal Government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest," the majority wrote.