But many private companies objected (PDF), saying the requirement violated their religious rights. Specifically, federal law says the government cannot substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless it's done in the least-restrictive way to accomplish a legitimate government interest.
Critics in the court's minority opinions said the conservative majority's decision would allow for-profit companies to “opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Alito's majority ruling rejected that notion, saying the administration had already created a system for accommodating corporate owners who have religious objections to the rule, when it allowed religious not-for-profits to allow third-party insurers to provide coverage if they agreed to sign forms certifying their objections in writing. The court suggested HHS could side-step the entire controversy be extending the same accommodation to any company whose owners object:
“The effect of the HHS-created accommodation on the women employed by Hobby Lobby and the other companies involved in these cases would be precisely zero,” Alito wrote. “Under that accommodation, these women would still be entitled to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost-sharing.”
Although this particular decision doesn't threaten the future of the healthcare reform law, it has ignited passions nationwide by drawing on topics like religious freedom, women's rights, abortion and a reform law that remains controversial four years after its passage. The lawsuit is also one of many legal challenges pending in courts across the country that are designed to chip away at every conceivable weakness in the 900-page statute.
A second spate of 51 lawsuits filed mainly by Roman Catholic organizations like the University of Notre Dame and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York also appears headed to the Supreme Court. In those cases, religious not-for-profit employers argue that a compromise allowing them to opt-out of the requirement to cover contraceptives in employees' plans was not adequate because the employers still have to sign forms assigning that coverage to an outside insurance provider.
Monday's decision did not resolve those cases. The most well-known of them is Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius, which is pending in the federal appeals court in Denver. In January, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ordered the Obama administration not to enforce the contraceptives-coverage requirement against the Catholic order of nuns until the lawsuit is resolved.
Monday's decision marked the second time that a conservative majority of the Supreme Court has struck down aspects of the Democrat-passed reform law. In 2012, the court ruled that Congress could not force states to expand eligibility in their Medicaid programs, although the court uphold the law's requirement that nearly all Americans buy insurance coverage in that same decision.
With the Hobby Lobby litigation resolved, many eyes will turn to a set of four lawsuits that do appear to threaten the financial underpinnings of the reform law.