Presented two opportunities to issue opinions with far-reaching societal impact, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday effectively demurred, opting instead for rulings of limited scope.
The decisions released on Monday involved two hot-button issues: contraception requirements of the nation's new health care law and the imposition of mandatory union dues.
Although the cases had been argued broadly, the court chose to issue opinions -- both written by Justice Samuel Alito -- that were limited.
The court applied the decisions to the cases at hand and to those similarly situated.
That even the limited-scope decisions mustered only a 5-4 decision argues that there isn't enough support on the court for broad-based rulings just yet.
In the contraception case the owners of Hobby Lobby, a family owned chain of craft stores, as well as the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker, challenged the heath-law's requirement that health plans cover contraceptives without charging co-payments.
They had argued that doing so violated their religious beliefs. Opponents argued that allowing such a refusal denied women equal access to contraception. The case relied heavily on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton. That law insists federal laws accommodate the religious beliefs of individuals unless there is a compelling interest at stake that can't be attained through other means.
In the majority opinion Alito called the ruling "very specific" and ruled closely held, for-profit family companies should have the same rights the Obama administration has extended to religiously affiliated nonprofits that object on religious grounds.
It leaves open the question of what nonfamily held companies may do.
Similarly, the Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in its decision on union dues. At issue was whether Illinois home-care aides could be required to contribute.
The high court had ruled in 1977 that government workers could be required to pay fees to cover collective bargaining costs, but they could not be compelled to financially contribute to a union's political activities.
Public employee unions worried that the justices would overturn that precedent, thereby eliminating compulsory contributions. But Monday's 5-4 decision merely limits which workers are government employees.
The court's conservative majority said the home-care workers, paid with federal Medicaid funds administered by the state, do not meet that threshold. Compelling them to pay union dues infringes upon their First Amendment rights, Alito wrote.
But while leaving the 1977 ruling intact for now, Alito said it was based on "questionable foundation," a seeming invitation for a future challenge by workers who are indisputably public employees.
Based on our reading of the decisions, we have not heard the last of either issue.