Some corporations have religious rights, a deeply divided Supreme Court decided Monday in ruling that certain for-profit companies cannot be required to pay for specific types of contraceptives for their employees.
The 5-4 decision on ideological lines ended the high court's term with a legal and political setback for a controversial part of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.
It also set off a frenzied partisan debate over religious and reproductive rights that will continue through the November congressional elections and beyond.
All five conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents ruled in favor of closely held for-profit businesses -- those with at least 50% of stock held by five or fewer people, such as family-owned businesses -- in which the owners have clear religious beliefs.
Contraceptives or abortion?
Both corporations involved in Monday's rulng -- Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania and Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based arts-and-crafts retail giant -- emphasize their conscientious desire to operate in harmony with biblical principles while competing in a secular marketplace.
They argued the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, violates the First Amendment and other federal laws protecting religious freedom because it requires them to provide coverage for contraceptives like the "morning-after pill," which the companies consider tantamount to abortion.
"The companies in the cases before us are closely held corporations, each owned and controlled by members of a single family, and no one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.
The four liberal justices appointed by Democratic presidents, including the high court's three women, opposed the ruling as a possible gateway to further religious-based challenges that limit individual choice and rights.
"Into a minefield"
In dissent Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court had "ventured into a minefield," adding it would disadvantage those employees "who do not share their employer's religious beliefs."
The practical result will likely be an administrative fix by the Obama administration that subsidizes the contraceptives at issue, said CNN political analyst Gloria Borger.
"So in terms of a real gap in medical coverage for these women, should they want it, I think what you are going to see is the government sort of picking up where Hobby Lobby would leave off," Borger said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest signaled as much, telling reporters the Obama administration will work with Congress to ensure women affected by the ruling will continue to have coverage for contraceptives.
Obama believes that women "should make personal health care decisions for themselves, rather than their bosses deciding for them," Earnest said, adding that "today's decision jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies."
The decision comes two years after the justices narrowly preserved the health care reforms known as Obamacare and its key funding provision in another politically charged ruling.
This time, the issue revolved around a 1994 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Alito's opinion said prevents the government from "taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest."
Alito wrote that the court's conservative majority rejected the argument by the Department of Health and Human Services that "the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships."
"The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs," he wrote.
Monday's case presented a complex mix of legal, regulatory, and constitutional concerns-- over such hot-button issues as faith, abortion, corporate power, executive agency discretion, and congressional intent.
The political stakes were large, especially for the future effectiveness of the health law itself, which marked its fourth anniversary this spring.
The botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, the federal Obamacare website, was another political flashpoint along with other issues that many Republicans say proves the law is unworkable.
They have made Obamacare a key campaign issue in their fight to take control of the Senate while retaining their House majority.
"Today's decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of" big government, said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "The President's health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy."