The Supreme Court ruled Monday that certain "closely held" for-profit businesses can cite religious objections in order to opt out of a requirement in ObamaCare to provide free contraceptive coverage for their employees.
The 5-4 decision, in favor of arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby and one other company, marks the first time the court has ruled that for-profit businesses can cite religious views under federal law. It also is a blow to a provision of the Affordable Care Act which President Obama's supporters touted heavily during the 2012 presidential campaign.
"Today is a great day for religious liberty," Adele Keim, counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which represented Hobby Lobby, told Fox News.
The ruling was one of two final rulings to come down on Monday, as the justices wrapped up their work for the session. The other reined in the ability of unions to collect dues from home health care workers.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion in the ObamaCare case, finding the contraceptive mandate in its current form "unlawful." The court's four liberal justices dissented.
The Obama administration, two years ago, already negotiated with religious-based schools, hospitals and other non-profits to reach an accommodation on the issue of contraception coverage. In the wake of Monday's ruling, the question now before the administration is how it might try to accommodate for-profit businesses that claim religious objections while also extending contraceptive coverage to female workers.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday afternoon that the decision "jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies," but said the administration would respect the ruling.
"We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else," he said. Earnest did not get into specifics, saying they are still assessing the decision and trying to determine which companies are affected.
Alito suggested two ways the administration could ensure women get the contraception they want. It could pay for pregnancy prevention, he said. Or it could provide the same kind of accommodation made available to non-profits -- by letting the groups' insurers or a third-party administrator take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.
Even the latter, however, is controversial. Since Friday, three religious groups have filed emergency petitions before the court -- with the most recent being a Christian college -- seeking relief from the mandate, and accompanying fines set to go into effect on Tuesday.
The court granted the college, Wheaton College in Illinois, a temporary stay against complying with the mandate late Monday.
The court stressed that its ruling on Monday applies only to corporations that are under the control of just a few people in which there is no essential difference between the business and its owners.
But Alito held that in the case before the court, the religious objections cited were legally legitimate, under a law that bars the government from taking action in certain cases that "substantially burdens" freedom of religion. He noted that fines for one company could total $475 million per year if they did not comply with the ObamaCare rule.
"If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would," Alito wrote.
The Supreme Court challenge was brought by Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby and a furniture maker in Pennsylvania, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. The for-profit businesses challenged the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers cover contraception for women at no extra charge among a range of preventive benefits in employee health plans.
It was the first major challenge to ObamaCare to come before the court since the justices upheld the law's individual requirement to buy health insurance two years ago.
Dozens of companies, including Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives. The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court were those the plaintiffs say can work after conception. They are the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, as well as intrauterine devices, which can cost up to $1,000.
The court had never before recognized a for-profit corporation's religious rights under federal law or the Constitution. The companies in this case, and their backers, argued that a 1993 federal law on religious freedom extends to businesses.
The Obama administration had argued that a victory for the companies would prevent women who work for them from making decisions about birth control based on what's best for their health, not whether they can afford it.
Democratic leaders blasted the court's decision on Monday, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeting: "It's time that five men on the Supreme Court stop deciding what happens to women."
In a dissent she read aloud from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision "potentially sweeping" because it minimizes the government's interest in uniform compliance with laws affecting the workplace. "And it discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer's religious beliefs," Ginsburg said.
The Obama administration argued earlier this year that the case is not just about birth control, and that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the businesses could undermine laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.
Alito clarified that the decision Monday is limited to contraceptives under the health care law. "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," Alito said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.