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By Susan Parnas Frederick

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether closely held family businesses—in this case the family-owned businesses of Hobby Lobby, Mardel and Conestoga—can be required to provide its female employees with health insurance that includes access to free birth control, even if doing so would violate the strong religious beliefs of the families that own these businesses? In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Samuel Alito writing for the majority, the court said closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because to do so would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The U.S. Supreme Court decided a closely held familiay business cannot be required to provide all forms of contraception for free if it violates the owners' religious beliefs.The issue in this case arose out of ACA regulations that require companies to provide their female employees with health insurance that includes no-cost access to 20 forms of birth control. The families who own the Hobby Lobby, Mardel and Conestoga companies objected on religious grounds to providing four of those forms and challenged the birth control regulation under RFRA. RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that the rule furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.  When the court applied this test to the facts in this case, it determined the government had not shown it did not have another means to meet its goal of providing free access to birth control without imposing a substantial burden upon the exercise of religion.

It is important to recognize that today’s ruling only applies to the ACA’s birth control mandate as applied to closely-held corporations. Further analysis is needed to determine what, if any, state impact this decision has.  The court was very clear in stating that it does not apply to other ACA mandates such as vaccinations or blood transfusions. The court also stated that its ruling does not provide a shield for illegal employment discrimination as a “religious belief.”  Finally, nothing in the opinion indicates that the ACA itself is invalidated in any way.

Susan Parnas Frederick is senior federal affairs counsel in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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