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 ...