Jun 30, 2014 10:53 AM by CBS News
Attempting to expand religious expression protections to small business owners without significantly disrupting the rules that govern for-profit corporations, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Obama administration must exempt closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby from a rule requiring large companies to help pay for their employees' birth control.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the court ruled that closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby are protected by Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The RFRA dictates that an individual's religious expression shouldn't be "substantially burdened" by a law unless there is a "compelling government interest."
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the contraception rule "would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations."
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. -- two privately-held, for-profit companies -- sued the United States government over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide comprehensive health coverage (including contraception) or pay a fine. Hobby Lobby's owners, David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma, say they have strong objections based in their Christian faith to providing health care coverage for certain types of contraception. The Pennsylvania-based Hahn family, the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, had the same complaint.
The Obama administration already exempted nonprofits with religious affiliations, such as Catholic universities, from the contraception coverage rule.
Monday's ruling is a loss for reproductive rights advocates who have balked at the notion that some businesses can pick and choose which contraception methods to cover.
While it's a victory for Christian conservatives opposed to the contraception rule, the ruling skirts the broad ramifications that could have come from shielding all for-profit firms from laws that interfere with religious beliefs. Such a ruling, the administration argued, could have interfered with laws that ban gender discrimination, minimum wage and overtime laws, or mandated health coverage for vaccinations, to name a few.
Alito made several points to lay to rest concerns that corporations would take unfair of advantage of his ruling.
"In any event, our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate," he wrote. "Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs. Other coverage require
ments, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them."
Furthermore, Alito wrote that it "seems unlikely" that corporate giants like IBM or General Electric would seek the same exemption granted to Hobby Lobby.
© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.