By Joan Biskupic
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sometimes there is no middle ground.
Through much of the U.S. Supreme Court's term, the nine justices found common if narrow ground to bridge their differences. Many of their high-profile decisions avoided the polarization that defines Washington today. That all changed on Monday, the last day of the nine-month term, with the re-emergence of a familiar 5-4 fault line in a dispute over a U.S. law requiring employers to provide insurance for contraceptives.
For 30 minutes Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative who wrote the majority opinion, and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the lead dissent, voiced their competing views of the meaning for America of the decision permitting some corporate employers to object on religious grounds to certain kinds of birth control.
In recent weeks the justices had resolved an array of disputes, including over abortion protests and presidential appointment power, police searches of cellphones and environmental regulation, as well as rules for class-action lawsuits.
In all of those, the nine managed to find shared terrain, even some unanimity. In the cases over abortion protests and presidential “recess” appointments, the justices ruled 9-0 on the bottom line, even as four justices broke away each time to protest the majority’s legal reasoning.
But religion is different. The justices divide bitterly over it. Monday's case was further clouded by the issue of reproductive rights and the assertion by the family-owned companies in the dispute that some contraceptive drugs and devices are akin to abortion.
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the companies challenged the Obamacare insurance requirement for employee birth control. They objected to four methods, including the so-called morning-after pill. They said they should qualify for an exemption under a 1993 religious freedom law. The Obama administration countered that for-profit corporations, even closely held ones, are not covered by the 1993 law.
In his opinion for the court's five conservatives, Alito said there was a federal interest in ensuring that people who run their businesses for profit not compromise their religious beliefs. “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” he said. He asserted the decision would have limited effect.
Alito said Congress did not want to exclude people who operate for-profit businesses from the law's protections. Ginsburg countered that such a view effectively allows religious owners to impose their views on employees who might not share their belief.
In her dissent representing the four liberals, Ginsburg called the ruling one of “startling breadth.” A women’s rights advocate in the 1970s, she recalled how the court had long declared contraceptive coverage crucial to women’s participation in the economic life of the country.
The last announced opinion of the term, Monday's case was arguably the most high-profile. It forced the justices to confront difficult issues against the backdrop of the enduringly controversial 2010 signature healthcare law of Democratic President Barack Obama.
The term featured none of the blockbuster decisions of the past two years when the court upheld the Obamacare law and set the pace for same-sex marriage and voting rights. All told, this term's cases failed to capture public attention the same way. The rulings gave each side - left and right - something to call a triumph.
The justices also ruled narrowly, and even unanimously, in some major business cases, including one brought by Halliburton testing how easily shareholders can band together in class-action lawsuits for damages.
When the court separately ruled that the streaming video service Aereo Inc had violated copyright law, the majority stressed the decision was limited and did not cover other technologies such as cloud computing.
In politically gridlocked Washington, the justices, particularly Chief Justice John Roberts, could be feeling institutional pressure to come together rather than pull apart, Harvard law professor Richard Fallon said.
“We have this enormous gap in politics today, between liberals and conservatives,” Fallon said. “The chief justice may be naturally concerned that people not look at the Supreme Court and see it divided in this same way.”
But the justices found themselves more apart than together on Monday. Sitting alongside each other on the long mahogany bench, Alito and Ginsburg barely looked at each other while reading from their opinions.
(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller, Amy Stevens and Ross Colvin)