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Top US court says firms can limit birth control access

Family-owned private companies can deny birth control coverage in their employee health care plans, the US Supreme Court said on Monday in a ruling seen by some as a victory for religious freedom.

WASHINGTON: Family-owned private companies can deny birth control coverage in their employee health care plans, the US Supreme Court said on Monday in a ruling seen by some as a victory for religious freedom.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based chain of arts and crafts stores whose devout Christian owners, the Green family, balked at implementing the contraception portion of President Barack Obama's health care reforms.

"Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court's decision," said Hobby Lobby co-founder Barbara Green as anti-abortion activists cheered the outcome at the Supreme Court steps.

"The Court's decision is a victory not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith," added Green in a statement.

It was the first legal test of specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which seeks to extend health insurance to all Americans -- and which the Supreme Court in 2012 deemed constitutional.

Under Obamacare, religious employers -- notably the Roman Catholic Church, which fiercely opposes contraception -- don't have to include birth control in their employee health care plans.

The Obama administration had argued that Hobby Lobby, as a corporation with 500 stores and 13,000 employees nationwide, couldn't claim a similar exemption due to the religious beliefs of the Green family that owns it.

"Today's decision jeopardises the health of the women who are employed by these companies," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

"As millions of women know firsthand, contraception is often vital to their health and well-being."

Central to Monday's ruling was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that bars the federal government, without a compelling reason, from doing anything that "substantially burdens" an American's right to exercise their faith.

Had they refused to comply, Hobby Lobby and a second plaintiff, a Pennsylvania wood-working firm owned by a Mennonite family, would have faced fines as stiff as $1.3 million a day.

"If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would," said the ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, which defined Hobby Lobby as a "closely-held" business firmly in the hands of the family that built it.

In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress didn't adopt the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a way to accommodate the beliefs of profit-making corporations.

"Until today, religious exemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in 'the commercial, profit-making world'," she said, a view that her two fellow women justices shared.

Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm that represented Hobby Lobby, noted that the ruling concerns "small" family-owned companies, not large corporations.

"Over the past few years, the court has been very strong on religious liberties," the lawyer added in a conference call with reporters.

But Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, said Monday's ruling could open a legal can of worms, as well as deny birth control coverage to "tens of thousands" of American women."

"While the court purports to limit its ruling to closely-held corporations on this issue only, the majority opinion invites a number of 'me, too' religious objections by other companies on matters ranging from anti discrimination law to other medical procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations," she told AFP.

Obamacare mandates coverage for 20 forms of birth control, but the Greens strongly objected to four -- two types of morning-after pills and two types of intrauterine devices, or IUDs -- which they considered akin to abortion.

Earnest said Obama "believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them."

He also called on Congress to take action to help women get essential services that may have been ruled out by the court's ruling.

Hobby Lobby -- which, unusually for an American retailer, closes its stores on Sundays -- credits "God's grace and provision" for its economic success.

Besides their arts and crafts empire, the Green family runs an affiliated chain of 35 Christian bookstores and contributes a share of their profits to Christian causes.

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