WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that family-owned businesses are not required to provide birth control coverage to their employees if it conflicts with the business owners’ religious beliefs, a case that extended religious protections to for-profit corporations for the first time.
The ruling was a major victory for social conservatives, who objected to the requirement in President Obama’s health care law that businesses providing insurance to their employees must pay for coverage of contraceptives. The justices said businesses owned by individuals or families should not have to follow those particular government rules.
“A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote. “When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people. . . . And protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations . . . protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.”
The 5-to-4 ruling drew a blistering dissent from liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called it “a decision of startling breadth.”
Ginsburg, reflecting the sharp divisions over the ruling, objected to “the court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” saying it raised a host of new questions about the ability of corporations to use the shield of religious faith to protect themselves against federal laws they find distasteful.
The companies that brought the lawsuit — Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based arts and craft chain, and Conestoga, a furniture maker in East Pearl, Pa., — “surely do not stand alone’’ in their desire to avoid laws that conflict with religion, Ginsburg wrote.
Posing a series of scenarios, Ginsburg asked if the court’s decision would “extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?”
Ginsburg also pointed to cases where companies, citing their religious beliefs, have discriminated against black or homosexual patrons, female employees working without their father’s or husband’s consent, and couples living together without being married — and asked “how does the court divine which religious beliefs are worthy of accommodation, and which are not?”
But the justices in the conservative majority took pains to blunt the political impact of their decision. They insisted the case applies only to “closely held’’ companies, not those controlled by shareholders or large groups of investors.
Alito, writing for the majority, said it was intended to be narrowly interpreted. The decision, he said, would not allow racial discrimination in hiring under the shield of religious practice. Nor, he said, would it apply to other medical procedures such as vaccinations and blood transfusions.
“Our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate,” Alito wrote. “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.”
But Mark Tushnet, a Harvard law professor, said it is quite possible that when a Christian Scientist or Jehovah’s Witness raises the objections Ginsburg brought forth, they will prevail. Alito said in the opinion such plaintiffs would not prevail, but the underlying points in the case indicate they could, Tushnet said.
The debate over expanding religious protections for corporations echoed to some extent the court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which reinforced First Amendment speech rights for corporations seeking to spend money to influence political elections. This case, however, turned on the expansion of a religious freedom law that Congress passed in 1993 to include corporations, not the constitutional right to freedom of religion.
The court said that the government is required by the Religions Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to provide closely held corporations — those under the control of just a handful of people — with the same accommodations it already gives nonprofit organizations such as religious universities, hospitals, and charities who object to the contraceptive mandate on religious grounds.
The lawsuit against the federal government was brought by two companies.
Hobby Lobby employs more than 13,000 workers in more than 500 stores. It is owned by the Green family, evangelical Christians who also own Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain. The second plaintiff, Conestoga Wood Specialties, is owned by the Hahns, a Mennonite family, and employs 950 people.
Obama’s health care law requires company insurance plans to provide free access to 20 contraceptive methods that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood objected to having to cover two types of emergency contraceptive pills and two types of IUDs that they liken to abortion.
If the owners of the companies comply with the mandate, “they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies,” Alito wrote.
In trying to carve out a narrow exemption, the majority said the Obama administration could pay for the disputed forms of contraceptive coverage, if it chose. Forcing employers to pay for coverage was not the “least restrictive’’ option, they said.
Alito was joined in the majority opinion by fellow justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The court’s four liberal justices — Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — dissented.
The closely watched decision, released just before the court adjourns for the summer, was widely hailed by Christian groups and decried by women’s health groups.
“Today’s decision reassures Americans that they don’t have to check their religious freedoms at the door just because they own a business,” said Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a Woburn-based Christian nonprofit.
Dwight Duncan, a UMass Dartmouth constitutional law professor who filed an amicus brief siding with Hobby Lobby on behalf of several organizations including the Massachusetts Family Institute, said he expects other religiously owned companies “will come forward and say, ‘Me too.’ ”
Democrats in Washington, however, objected, though some analysts said they may benefit because it will energize their base, especially women voters.
“This ruling by an all-male majority of the Court diminishes the rights of women in the workplace and sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to corporations denying coverage of other important health care services,’’ said Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell.
The White House said Monday it is still assessing the court’s decision and its legal implications, but will seek to work with Congress to prevent a loss of birth control access for women at companies with religious owners.
“The Supreme Court ruled today that some bosses can now withhold contraceptive care from their employees’ health coverage based on their own religious views that their employees may not even share,” said Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, in a press briefing.Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.