Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling may have little impact in California

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Women’s rights advocates have denounced Monday's  US Supreme Court ruling that certain corporations may refuse to provide workers with insurance coverage for birth control on religious grounds. But some legal experts say the ruling may not have much of an impact in California.

The narrowly-tailored Supreme Court ruling is based on a federal statute known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. 

"Basically, what it has done is created an exemption from federal law for religious objectors," says Eugene Volokh,  a constitutional law professor at UCLA. "That if a person has a religious objection to a law and concludes the law requires him to do something that is religiously forbidden, then he can generally get an exemption unless the government can show denying the exemption is really necessary to serve its compelling interest." 

In their 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that certain for-profit corporations – in this case a large, Christian-owned chain of arts and crafts stores called, Hobby Lobby - also have religious rights under the Act.  And that means they don’t have to provide their workers with insurance that covers birth control -  as is required under the federal Affordable Care Act.

But, the ruling, Volokh says, is limited to federal laws and regulations and does not apply to state laws. 

"Californians are also protected under California laws and those California laws aren’t subject to this federal exemption," he says.

Among them is the 15-year- old California’s Women’s Contraception Equity Act. 

That law requires that companies provide birth control benefits to their workers if they also provide them with prescription drug benefits. The Equity Act does allow a religious employer to seek an exemption –but only if the organization is a non-profit one.

Still, the state law is  limited as it only applies to companies that buy health insurance plans and not to companies that self-insure – by paying for claims out of pocket rather than paying a fixed premium to an insurance carrier, says Marcia Greenberger, co president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. 

Greenberger says  California is among more than two dozen states with their own contraceptive equity acts.

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