Supreme Court decides in favour of religious freedom in major ruling

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The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the owners of most American businesses do not have to comply with an Obama administration mandate requiring them to pay for health insurance covering abortifacients for their employees; provided that the business owners have a religious objection to providing such coverage.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the owners of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, which was suing the Obama administration over being forced to cover four forms of contraception which can in some circumstances act as abortifacients.

The Court's ruling was limited, finding that the Obama administration was not using the “least restrictive means possible” to achieve its goals. In forcing 'closely-held' corporations (those with fewer than fifty full-time employees which are not publicly traded) to pay for abortion-inducing drugs or devices, the court ruled that the Government were in breach of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires that religious objectors must be exempt from a government policy that imposes a substantial burden on their beliefs if the government has a less burdensome way of advancing a compelling interest.

The court's four 'conservative' justices, as well as the usual swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, found that closely held companies can be religious objectors protected by the law, and that the government can indeed make contraception more affordable without coercing these companies.

The court did not decide whether providing these forms of contraception constituted a 'compelling interest' for the government, on whether objections to non-abortifacient contraceptives would be upheld in future cases, or on whether non-corporate bodies would be fully exempt from aspects of the governement's mandate.

Another case, deciding on whether the Little Sisters of the Poor order of Catholic nuns will be required to authorise another party to provide contraceptive coverage to employees if they do not do it themselves, remains to be decided.

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