US: Supreme Court rules that religious freedom applies to businesses

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that businesses can use religious freedom laws to avoid providing some medical coverage, in a ruling which could impact future LGBT court cases.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favour of owners of retail chain Hobby Lobby, who objected on religious grounds to a portion of the Affordable Care Act that mandates they provide medical coverage including contraceptives to employees.

The majority opinion to reject the birth control mandate could have far-reaching consequences, as it applies the First Amendment to businesses for the first time.

The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Towleroad noted previously: “A ruling in favor of the employers in these cases (…) could open the door for employers to seek exemptions from providing coverage for other health benefits, such as coverage for the same-sex spouses or partners of employees, reproductive services for lesbian couples, testing and treatment for men at risk of HIV infection, transgender treatment for people with gender dysphoria.

“Employers and individuals might seek exemptions to other laws, such as laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from the ruling, attacked it as a “decision of startling breadth”.

She said: “The court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, can opt out of any law, saving only tax laws, they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

However, Slate writer Mark Stern says the result is “surprisingly good news” for the gay community, writing: “In an attempt to narrow the ruling’s effect, the conservative majority makes a surprising concession—one that could be good news for gay people.

“Justice Anthony Kennedy [makes] it clear that the majority isn’t rewriting RFRA (or the First Amendment) to protect anti-gay discrimination.

“While religious liberty may permit employers to exercise their own beliefs to a point, ‘neither may that same exercise unduly restrict … employees in protecting their own interests’.

“Translation: This case is about birth control and nothing more—and as a general rule, employees still have a compelling interest in most laws that protect their rights.”

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