Abortion and Obamacare are an explosive mix but the U.S. Supreme Court appears to have charted a viable course through this minefield on Monday.
Ruling 5-4 in one of the marquee cases of the current term, the justices said the Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. chain of craft stores can't be forced to provide certain contraceptives for employees in violation of sincerely held religious beliefs of the family that owns the company.
The court upheld the Affordable Care Act's goal of mandating that contraceptives be included in health care policies, making them widely available to the nation's women. But for religious purposes, the court said the regulations written by the Obama administration should treat for-profit companies that object to the provisions, such as Hobby Lobby, the same way they treat some non-profit corporations -- have insurance carriers provide and pay for the contraceptives instead.
Whether that's seen as a workable way to accommodate religious beliefs or an outrageous denial of contraceptive care might depend on whether you are convinced that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the swing vote, is correct when he says this is a very limited ruling.
It's helpful to understand what the ruling didn't do. The court didn't extend broad constitutional protections to corporations. Instead, it based its ruling on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government, to avoid burdening the free exercise of religion, has to find the least restrictive way to accomplish its goals. That law, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously and the Senate with only three dissenting votes, was signed by President Bill Clinton. It was a reaction to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that refused to recognize the rights of Native Americans in Oregon to use peyote in religious ceremonies. Congress felt the court back then was being too burdensome on religious practices.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the court based its ruling on the argument that the Affordable Care Act had included an escape clause, quite controversial at the time, for the Catholic Church which was concerned its non-profit corporations would have to provide birth control and abortions at its hospitals and for its employees. In asking for a narrower exemption, the owners of Hobby Lobby objected to four of the 20 forms of birth control, including IUD's and the morning-after pill, which the company considers the same as abortion.
Within minutes of the decision, the political backlash had begun, not surprising considering the sprawling and conflicting interpretations the justices themselves had of the case. House Speaker John Boehner used it to again attack the Affordable Care Act and the tyranny of big government. Democrats and women's-rights organizations denounced it as a defeat for all women and the denial of birth control.
Even accepting this as a narrow call, there is still reason for concern. Could it unleash additional challenges to mandated health care coverage, for instance, for vaccines and transfusions that some religions oppose? For the moment the court has found a way to protect the religious rights of company owners without depriving their employees of federally mandated contraceptive coverage.
That's a sound balance despite the political noise surrounding it.