High court ruling on employers and contraception to be felt in Minnesota

Supreme Court Issues Rulings on Hobby Lobby case
Supporters of employer-paid birth control rally in front of the Supreme Court before the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was announced June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court's ruling that companies whose owners have religious objections to a federal requirement that they provide contraceptives will not have to pay for it will affect at least seven Minnesota court cases.

Minneapolis attorney Erick Kardaal, who challenged the Affordable Care Act Mandate on behalf of seven clients, is calling the high court's ruling a victory for people with religious objections to government policies.

Kardaal said the court's ruling doesn't provide an automatic exemption from the mandate for the family-owned or closely-held businesses he represents, but he is confident that it bodes well for his clients.

More: Justices: U.S. can't make employers cover contraception

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"The U.S. Supreme Court case has substantially the same facts as the Protestant/Catholic business owners I'm representing," he said.

Among his clients is Annex Medical of Minnetonka, which has a case pending before the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The company designs, manufactures and sells medical devices.

Like the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, the firm's owners believe that paying for a group health insurance plan that includes contraception, sterilization, and Plan B, sometimes called the morning-after pill, violates their religious beliefs.

Annex Medical, like the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, sued even though the company's existing health plan covered the contraceptives the company owners found objectionable.

Kardaal said the company owners weren't aware the health plans they provided violated their religious beliefs. He said it wasn't until the Affordable Care Act made it a requirement that they started asking questions.

"The insurance policies are complicated," he said. "Sometimes the specific coverages, like...contraceptives and so forth, they're not mentioned in the insurance policies and a few of my clients didn't understand that until they started asking questions."

The high court's opinion notes that if Hobby Lobby, the lead plaintiff, chose not to provide the contraceptive coverage the Affordable Care Act requires, the company's taxes would jump by nearly $500,000.

While some businesses are overjoyed by the Supreme Court's decision, leaders of Planned Parenthood called it outrageous. Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota said the organization is deeply disappointed and frustrated.

"Now, some women's bosses are going to be able to interfere with employees' access to birth control," Stoesz said. "And birth control is important for women not just so they can plan their families, but also so they can address underlying health conditions."

In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg notes that pregnancy can be medically risky for women with certain medical conditions, such as some heart conditions.

Just what the ruling will mean for Minnesota's health plans is still being determined. What is clear is that health plans will have to follow the law, said Eileen Smith, director of communications for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans.

"This ruling does not impact all employers so it's important that the plans determine with their legal teams what the ruling is, how it impacts specific products and specific employers that they work with," she said.

While the Supreme Court's ruling answers one question, it does raise others. Among them is whether the court has opened the door to other religious exemptions from federal laws, such as whether a wedding photographer or florist who objects to participating in a same-sex wedding can do so.

The justices said the ruling today does not provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.

But the decision leaves room for such arguments, said Tom Berg, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

"This doesn't decide those cases," he said. "But it does say they all have to be weighed on their facts with religious freedom taken seriously."