ABC News' Ariane de Vogue and Jake Lefferman report:
Supreme Court justices had to weigh three questions before reaching a 5-4 decision that allowed two for-profit corporations with sincerely held religious beliefs not to provide a full range of contraceptives at no cost to their employees pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.
The companies, Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, and Conestoga, a cabinet making company, had to come out on the right side of all three of the following questions to prevail:
1. Can a for-profit corporation bring a religious liberty claim?
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said it could.
He pointed to a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that was designed to "provide very broad protection for religious liberty."
"A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends," Alito wrote. He said protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga "protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in dissent, says a for-profit corporation could not bring a religious liberty claim.
She noted the court did something brand new today: It recognized that a for-profit corporation can bring free-exercise claims. She quoted her retired colleague, former Justice John Paul Stevens, who said, "corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires."
2. Now that Hobby Lobby can get in the door with a free exercise claim, is Hobby Lobby's exercise of religion substantially burdened by the contraception mandate?
The majority said yes, again.
Alito noted the owners of Hobby Lobby would be forced to violate their religious beliefs or pay a fine.
"If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions," he said, "and if they do not comply they will pay a very heavy price - as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year," in the case of Hobby Lobby.
Alito didn't think the Congress that enacted RFRA would have wanted family-run businesses to have to make the choice of "violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing health care plans."
Ginsburg said that even if the companies were burdened, an exemption would hurt "legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs" … which brings us to the last question.
3. If the company is substantially burdened, does the government have a compelling interest to pass the law and is it the least restrictive means possible?
This was the clincher for Alito.
He sidestepped the question of the government's interest but said the government failed to prove this was the least restrictive means to achieve the result. The government already offered churches an exception and non-profits an accommodation. Why couldn't the same thing be achieved here? Or why can't the government assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any woman unable to obtain them under her health insurance policy?
There were some questions from today's decision that might need to be fleshed out in the lower court.
Alito and Ginsburg, for example, disagreed on the breadth of today's holding.
"Our holding is specific," Alito said , stressing that the cases "do not involve publicly traded corporations" and adding that it was "unlikely" that corporate giants will assert RFRA claims.
But Ginsburg wasn't buying that. She said the majority's attempt to "cabin its language" to closely held corporations will fail and that "its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private."
Furthermore, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga only objected to four of the 20 contraceptives covered by the HHS regulations. But other closely held for-profit organizations in the lower court object to all of the contraceptives.
Ginsburg said today, "Moreover the court's reasoning appears to permit commercial enterprises like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to exclude from their group health plans all forms of contraceptives."