WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that closely held corporations with religious objections to the 'contraception mandate' in President Obama's health-care law cannot be forced to offer birth control coverage.

The ruling, announced on the last day of the term, came two years after the justices narrowly upheld President Obama's health care law as constitutional.

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.

On one side were the owners of two for-profit companies -- the giant Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Mennonite-owned cabinet maker -- claiming they should not have to include in their insurance plans certain forms of birth control that they equate with abortion.

On the other side was the Obama administration, whose regulations implementing the health-care law make exceptions from the 'contraception mandate' only for churches and religious non-profits.

Most companies with more than 50 employees who do not provide the coverage face fines of $100 per day per employee. That could cost Hobby Lobby $475 million a year for its 13,000 workers.

The companies say that intrauterine devices (IUDs) and morning-after pills cause abortions by blocking a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. That is disputed by groups that lobby for reproductive rights, who contend the drugs and devices prevent fertilization from occurring.

The case represented the second major one this term testing the Constitution's protection of religious rights. Last month, the court upheld the centuries-old tradition of opening government meetings with a prayer, even when nearly all the prayers are Christian.

The contraceptive requirement remains the subject of more than 80 lawsuits across the country. Federal appeals courts were evenly divided on the rights of for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.

The court's ruling does not affect the broader aspects of the law -- its extension of coverage to millions of needy Americans or its requirements that most others buy insurance from state or federal marketplaces.

The ACLU of Virginia released the following statement:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Virginia women and all employees of closely held businesses (a substantial majority of all Virginia businesses).

The Court gave a green light to business owners who want to impose their personal religious beliefs on unwilling employees. In doing so, the Court flipped the fundamental American value of religious freedom on its head. Now, not only do owners of closely held businesses have the right to believe what they wish, they are entitled to impose those beliefs on their unwilling employees, regardless of the harm.

The Court's ruling means that the religious beliefs of business owners, not medical science or decision-making, will guide what is included in employer sponsored health insurance. Despite the effort of the majority opinion to limit the decision to the provision of birth control, the Court's holding will give business owners cover to refuse to offer insurance to cover other preventive health care (like blood transfusions or immunizations) if to do so would offend the owner's beliefs.

To make matters worse, this decision will likely further embolden those who wish to use religion as a reason to discriminate in their businesses, their professional practices, and their companies. Not unlike those who used religion to defend slavery, to deny women the right to vote, and to oppose integration, there is a movement underway in Virginia to grant legal protections to service providers, businesses, and professionals who want to deny their services to LGBT Virginians. The Court clearly opens the door to such arguments by highlighting that the standard for judging whether such efforts are illegal will be whether a law prohibiting such discrimination is supported by a compelling governmental interest (generally only applicable to racial discrimination) and the prohibitions are 'precisely tailored' to achieve that goal.

Today's decision will only serve to fuel efforts to pass legislation that would grant businesses and state-licensed service providers additional licenses to discriminate and establish religious exceptions to otherwise neutral government laws prohibiting discrimination.

-Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga

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