Court: Religious rights trump birth control rule

By Mark Sherman / The Associated Press

Union ruling — The Supreme Court dealt a limited blow to labor unions Monday by ruling that some government employees did not have to pay any fees to the labor organizations representing them. But the court declined to strike down a decades-old precedent that required many public-sector workers to pay union fees.

Writing the majority 5-4 opinion, Justice Samuel Alito concluded that there was a category of government employee — a partial public employee — who can opt out of joining a union and not be required to contribute dues to that labor group.

Alito wrote that home-care aides who typically work for an ill or disabled person, with Medicaid paying their wages, should be classified as partial public employees and should not be treated the same way as public-school teachers or police officers who work directly for the government.

The court’s decision was a partial, but not total win, for labor’s critics. And while labor did sustain a defeat in this ruling, it did not amount to a crippling loss that unions had feared.

If the court had overturned the precedent requiring many government workers to pay union fees, it could have greatly reduced the membership and treasuries of public-employee unions.

Several of the original plaintiffs were mothers who, helped by Medicaid, were personal home-care assistants to their disabled children and opposed joining the union and paying any union fees.

Alito wrote that unions play such a limited role for “partial public employees” like home-care aides that these aides should not be required to pay union fees — indeed he wrote that such a requirement would violate the aides’ First Amendment rights. He noted that states often set the wage levels for these workers and that unions often do not bargain collectively for them.

— New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that some companies with religious objections can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the first time the high court has declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.

The justices’ 5-4 decision, splitting conservatives and liberals, means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under the health insurance plans of objecting companies.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion, over a dissent from the four liberal justices, that forcing companies to pay for methods of women’s contraception to which they object violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He said the ruling is limited and there are ways for the administration to ensure women get the birth control they want.

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the decision creates health risks for women, and he said Congress should take action to make sure they get coverage.

“President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them,” Earnest said. “Today’s decision jeopardizes the health of the women who are employed by these companies.”

Nearly 30 million women receive birth control as a result of the health law, the government has said.

Benefits experts say they expect little impact from the ruling because employers use health benefits to recruit and retain workers. But one constitutional law scholar, Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University, cautioned that more than 80 percent of U.S. corporations are closely held and she said they could “now be able to discriminate against their employees.”

Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts cast the pivotal Supreme Court vote that saved the law in the midst of Obama’s campaign for re-election. On Monday, Roberts sided with the four justices who would have struck down the law in its entirety, holding in favor of the religious rights of closely held corporations, like the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-craft stores that challenged the contraceptives provision.

Hobby Lobby — which plans to open a location at the former Sears store at the Bend River Promenade on Northeast Third Street — is among roughly 50 businesses that have sued over covering contraceptives. Some, like the two involved in the Supreme Court case, are willing to cover most methods of contraception, as long as they can exclude drugs or devices that the government says may work after an egg has been fertilized.

But Monday’s ruling would apply more broadly to other companies that do not want to pay for any of the 20 birth control methods and devices that have been approved by federal regulators.

Alito said the decision is limited to contraceptives. “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,” he said.