WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday that the government cannot force certain employers to pay for birth control was more than a rebuke to President Obama. It was vindication of the conservative movement’s efforts to chip away at laws it finds objectionable by raising questions of freedom of expression.
The decision — like several recent rulings from the justices and lower courts involving prayer at town meetings and protests outside abortion clinics — carved out a significant, albeit narrow exception to a law that social conservatives have been unable to overturn outright.
The ruling comes as social conservatives have suffered setbacks on another high-profile social issue, same-sex marriage, and leaders predicted Monday’s decision would infuse Republicans with energy as they fight to take control of the Senate this year and reclaim the White House in 2016.
“The court has made clear today that the Obama administration’s assault on religious freedom in this case went too far,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, one of several conservative Republicans weighing a White House run. “But this assault will not stop in our courts, in our schools and in the halls of power.”
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Yet even as conservatives celebrated coming out on the winning side of a divisive social issue, their victory may have also handed Democrats an issue that will turn out liberal voters in the fall.
Democrats have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last several years to cast Republicans as extreme on women’s health issues. And party strategists believe their ability to hold on to the Senate this year depends in large part on convincing women that a Republican Senate and White House would only produce more outcomes like Monday’s ruling.
Within hours of the decision, Obama and his allies criticized it as the latest attempt by conservative men to control matters that are best left to women and their doctors.
Democrats have already started to draw sharp contrasts with their Republican rivals in several races that will determine which party controls the Senate: Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Alaska and Iowa.
“The notion that five older men will say that some business can dictate health choices to their employees is a fairly understandable and powerful argument,” said David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign. “This is a 1950 decision in an America of 2014. For millions of women, this can be a huge issue.”
The White House on Monday called on Congress to ensure that the women who stand to lose coverage as a result of this decision still have access to contraception, a move that could include requiring that insurance companies or the government pay for it themselves. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, vowed action quickly.
Though Democrats contend that voters will trust them more than they trust Republicans on women’s health issues, polls show that the question can cut both ways and that abortion remains just as decisive for Republicans.
Asked whether they would still vote for a candidate who did not share their views on abortion, 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans said they would not, according to a February New York Times/CBS News poll.
But several recent surveys have shown that a majority of Americans do not believe that employers should be able to choose what kind of contraceptives are covered by health plans based on their religious beliefs.
The Republican plan to turn these issues to their political advantage depends largely on the same approach that has proved so successful in the courts. Conservatives have prevailed on legal grounds by making their arguments about the First Amendment. And many Republicans signaled Monday that they would continue to fight Obama and Democrats not only on specific women’s health-care matters like contraception or abortion, but also on the broader principle of religious freedom.
The narrative that the president has pursued an agenda that favors the power of the government to regulate the freedom of the individual is potent among the conservative base.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the leading voices of the Republican Party’s right flank and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, called the decision an affirmation that Americans “have a right to live and work in accordance to their conscience.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another figure on the right who is popular among the conservative base and is considering a run for the White House, said the decision guaranteed that “Americans can stay true to their faith without fear of big government intervention or punishment.”
Democrats said the decision would allow them to show that campaign wrangling over women’s health is not an abstraction.
“There will be Supreme Court vacancies in the coming years,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is in a close race defending his seat from a challenge by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. “The 100 senators sit in judgment of the president’s nominees for the Supreme Court. That in and of itself is a fundamental difference between me and Cory Gardner.”