By Adam Liptak
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. It was, a dissent said, “a decision of startling breadth.”
The 5-4 ruling, which applied to two companies owned by Christian families, opened the door to many challenges from corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.
The decision, issued on the last day of the term, reflected what appears to be a key characteristic of the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — an inclination toward nominally incremental rulings with vast potential for great change.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, emphasized the ruling’s limited scope. For starters, he said, the court ruled only that a federal religious-freedom law applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles. Even those corporations, he said, were unlikely to prevail if they objected to complying with other laws on religious grounds.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent sounded an alarm. She attacked the majority opinion as a radical overhaul of corporate rights, one she said could apply to all corporations and to countless laws.
The contraceptive coverage requirement was challenged by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses on Christian principles: Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets.
Alito said he accepted for the sake of argument that the government had a compelling interest in making sure women have access to contraception. But he said there were ways of doing that without violating the companies’ religious rights.
The government could pay for the coverage, he said. Or it could employ the accommodation already in use for certain nonprofit religious organizations, one requiring insurance companies to provide the coverage. The majority did not go so far as to endorse the accommodation.
Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion.
Ginsburg, joined on this point by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the court had for the first time extended religious-freedom protections to “the commercial, profit-making world.”
“The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined almost all of her dissent.