WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a privately held business may refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees.
Jewish groups had closely watched the case that Hobby Lobby, a crafts chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker, had brought against requirements in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, because it is the president’s signature first-term legislation.
The act mandated extending contraceptives coverage to employees of private firms, although it had a range of exceptions for nonprofits and religious institutions. The owners of the two businesses, devout Christians, said mandating the provision of contraceptive coverage violated their religious freedoms.
Jewish groups lined up on both sides of the issue, with Orthodox groups likening the law to mandates overseas banning ritual slaughter and liberal Jewish groups saying its reversal would impinge on the rights of women and could set a precedent allowing employers to deny a range of services for religious beliefs, for instance blood transfusions and other medical interventions.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the decision delivered Monday, said the ruling would not apply to potentially life-saving interventions, including vaccinations and blood transfusion.
“This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs,” he wrote.
Jewish Women International said Monday’s decision coupled with a decision last week that disallowed buffer zones for protesters at abortion clinics “sent women’s rights backwards.”
“This is not a matter of protecting religious freedoms for non-religious institutions,” said Lori Weinstein, the group’s CEO. “This is about every woman’s right to life, to safety of body and mind, and to safety and access to health care. The Supreme Court has failed to protect the women of this country. We deserve better.”
The Orthodox Union said the ruling balances government’s requirement to provide “valuable” services with Americans’ religious freedoms.
“The Court’s ruling stands for the proposition that — even when the government seeks to implement valuable policy goals — it must do so without trampling upon the conscientious beliefs of American citizens,” the umbrella body said in a statement, “especially, as is the case here, when there are many other ways to meet the policy goals without infringing on religious liberty.”