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Supreme Court Rules Employers Can Deny Women Birth Control Coverage

7/01/14

Photo of the U. S. Supreme Court

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court decision granting private businesses an unprecedented religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employee health plans include coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives.  In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court makes women’s access to quality and affordable preventative care, which is guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act, dependent upon her employer’s religious beliefs and opens the door for employers to use religion as a pretext for discrimination.

The Court announced that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which limits government action that burdens a “person’s free exercise of religion,” applies to “closely-held” for-profit corporations.  This is the first time that the Supreme Court has interpreted the protection of the free exercise of religion to extend beyond a natural person’s “individual” liberty. 

As noted by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion, “until today, religious exemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in ‘the commercial, profit-making world.’”  The Court also held that that the federal mandate to provide health insurance with contraceptive care coverage substantially burdens the exercise of religion for the three corporations involved here.  

Although the Court rightly concluded that the government has a compelling interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to contraception, it nevertheless held that the government has less restrictive means of furthering that interest.  Although Justice Alito, who authored the decision, states that it “does not provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” the Court’s authorization of the religious exemption under these circumstances departs from decades of established anti-discrimination precedent and invites exactly the type of conduct it claims to avoid.

LDF filed a “friend of the court” brief in this case opposing a religious exemption to the ACA’s contraceptive care requirement because it recognizes that access to such reproductive health care is critical to ensuring that women have an equal opportunity to become healthy and productive members of the job force and society at large.  Because the high cost of health care – including the significant cost of high quality contraceptive care – contributes to persistent disparities in health outcomes for African Americans overall and women of color in particular, the decision may impose additional financial and health burdens on women in the workforce. 

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. observed that, “Longstanding precedent prohibits discrimination by employers like Hobby Lobby against employees who do not share their religious beliefs.  This has been a cornerstone of American law for decades because in the history of our country, religion has repeatedly been used as a justification for discrimination and claims of faith have been used to shroud acts of bigotry.”

Although the Court states that its decision is limited to the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate and that it does not apply to other insurance mandates or generally applicable laws, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent cautions that the Court’s attempt to so cabin the reach of this decision will be insufficient, warning that the Court’s expanded notion of “corporate personhood…invites for-profit entities to seek religious based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” 

LDF urges Congress to take swift action to ensure that all women have access to affordable contraception.