WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that closely held corporations with religious objections to the "contraception mandate" in President Obama's health-care law cannot be forced to offer birth control coverage.
The ruling, announced on the last day of the term, came two years after the justices narrowly upheld President Obama's health care law as constitutional.
With its combination of controversial issues -- religion, abortion, contraception, the health care law, business rights and government regulations -- the case had emerged as the most controversial of the term that began in October. Groups on both sides of the debate pitting religious freedom against reproductive rights had inundated the court with briefs.
On one side were the owners of two for-profit companies -- the giant Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Mennonite-owned cabinet maker -- claiming they should not have to include in their insurance plans certain forms of birth control that they equate with abortion.
On the other side was the Obama administration, whose regulations implementing the health-care law make exceptions from the "contraception mandate" only for churches and religious non-profits.
Most companies with more than 50 employees who do not provide the coverage face fines of $100 per day per employee. That could cost Hobby Lobby $475 million a year for its 13,000 workers.
The companies say that intrauterine devices (IUDs) and morning-after pills cause abortions by blocking a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. That is disputed by groups that lobby for reproductive rights, who contend the drugs and devices prevent fertilization from occurring.
The case represented the second major one this term testing the Constitution's protection of religious rights. Last month, the court upheld the centuries-old tradition of opening government meetings with a prayer, even when nearly all the prayers are Christian.
The contraceptive requirement remains the subject of more than 80 lawsuits across the country. Federal appeals courts were evenly divided on the rights of for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.
The court's ruling does not affect the broader aspects of the law -- its extension of coverage to millions of needy Americans or its requirements that most others buy insurance from state or federal marketplaces.