supreme court historyToday in Supreme Court History. On this day in 2014, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) cannot force a “closely held company” to cover certain types of contraceptives for its employees because the government could not show that the requirement was the “least burdensome” way to avoid interfering with religious convictions. The Court emphasized that this decision does not mean that companies could refuse to cover other things, such as blood transfusions.

The Question before the Court was:

Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 allow a for-profit company to deny its employees health coverage of contraception to which the employees would otherwise be entitled based on the religious objections of the company’s owners?

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion for the 5-4 majority. The Court held that Congress intended for the RFRA to be read as applying to corporations since they are composed of individuals who use them to achieve desired ends. Because the contraception requirement forces religious corporations to fund what they consider abortion, which goes against their stated religious principles, or face significant fines, it creates a substantial burden that is not the least restrictive method of satisfying the government’s interests.

In the opinion by Justice Alito, the Court stated: “The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate…against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs….Our responsibility is to enforce RFRA as written, and under the standard that RFRA prescribes, the HHS contraceptive mandate is unlawful.”

Under RFRA, if a law substantially burdens someone’s religious practice, the government must prove that the burden is necessary to advance a compelling government interest. The government must also prove that its pursuit of that compelling interest is being undertaken by using the “least restrictive means.”

In its Hobby Lobby ruling, the Supreme Court found that the government had failed to demonstrate that the ACA’s contraception mandate was the least restrictive means of achieving its goal of providing cost-free access to female employees to the full range of contraceptive methods.

In a 35-page dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith—in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ. Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent.”