WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court advanced the cause of religious freedom Monday in the most closely watched case of its term, ruling that companies cannot be forced to offer insurance coverage for birth control methods they equate with abortion.
The 5-4 decision by the court’s conservative majority, over the vehement objections of liberal justices, dealt a blow to President Obama’s health care law two years after the court came within one vote of striking it down as unconstitutional.
It represented the second consecutive victory at the court for the religious right. Last month, the court upheld the centuries-old tradition of opening government meetings with a prayer, even when nearly all the prayers are Christian.
With its combination of controversial issues – religion, abortion, contraception, the health care law, business rights and government regulations – the case had emerged as the most controversial of the term that began in October. Groups on both sides of the debate pitting religious freedom against reproductive rights had inundated the court with briefs.
In the end, the conservatives led by Justice Samuel Alito ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 protects closely held for-profit corporations – those controlled by a limited number of shareholders – from the law’s so-called contraception mandate because it burdens their exercise of religion.
The majority claimed that its decision should not deny contraceptives to women employed by the companies because the administration already has devised a workaround for religious non-profits in which insurers, not employers, would provide the coverage. But that accommodation has been challenged by many religious non-profits as inadequate.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that if some companies can avoid covering contraceptives, others could seek religious waivers for other types of health care, such as vaccines or blood transfusions.