In a welcome decision issued yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot force private, for-profit businesses to provide contraceptives to employees. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the decision in a statement, saying, “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.”
The 5-4 decision was a rebuke of the controversial contraception mandate issued by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in 2011. The mandate requires almost all health plans to cover contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization procedures with no cost sharing or copayments from employees.
Two private companies, Hobby Lobby stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., filed suit against the mandate, claiming it violated their fee-exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which prohibits the government from infringing on religious liberties. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are family-run businesses that operate on Christian principles. In their arguments, the families argued that the contraception mandate forced them to either violate their faith beliefs on the sanctity of human life or face crippling fines. The government argued that the companies could choose to not offer any insurance to employees, but the Court rejected this argument, ruling that HHS had failed to use the least restrictive means to guarantee its plan for no-cost access to birth control.
However, Alito’s majority opinion emphasized that the decision was narrowly tailored to apply only to closely-held, for-profit businesses. As the Bishops emphasized in their statement, “The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”
While supporters of religious liberty should rejoice in yesterday’s decision by the Court, there is more work yet to do. A plethora of similar suits by religious nonprofits, charities, hospitals and schools are still pending. During this third Fortnight for Freedom and beyond, Catholics and all people of good will must remain vigilant in defending the “freedom to serve” in accordance with our faith!