Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Debacle

The Supreme Court’s right-wing majority has struck another major blow against women and Obamacare, ruling on Monday that private employers do not have to include contraceptive coverage in employee health plans if the business owners’ religion is opposed to abortion-related services. The ruling, which dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called "extreme" in comments from the bench, affirmed that corporations—not just individuals—possess religious rights and freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

“We must decide whether the challenged HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do,” wrote Justice Samual Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority. “Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest, and we assume that the HHS regulations satisfy this requirement. But in order for the HHS mandate to be sustained, it must also constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, and the mandate plainly fails that test.”

The Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, requires private employers to provide contraception but it exempted religious non-profit organizations—like Catholic hospitals—that believe birth control is against their beliefs. That did not suffice for conservatives who said that the law violated their religious liberty.

“In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Justice Ginsburg said in her dissent joined by all the Court’s women justices and Justice Stephen Breyer. “The exemption sought by [Christian businesses] Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents. It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure.”

Reactions to the decision were immediate. The liberal People for the American Way said, in an e-mail blast, “The Supreme Court just ruled 5-4 that CORPORATIONS have a “religious” right to discriminate against their employees.” The right-wing Independent Women’s Forum said, “This ruling is a victory for anyone who believes in limited government and freedom of conscience rights or religious liberty.

“Today’s decision not only deprives women of comprehensive healthcare, but it sets a terrifying standard in affirming the 'personhood' of corporations. In siding with Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court yet again affirms the personhood of corporations, giving closely-held (i.e. limited number of stockholders) corporations so-called religious liberty and taking religious freedom away from their employees at the expense of women’s health,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “This sets a dangerous precedent for the future of religious liberty and women’s rights.”

The Court’s ruling comes from several lawsuits filed by conservatives that were consolidated into one case.

Two prominent lawsuits brought against Obamacare’s birth control mandate had been dismissed, but that didn’t stop Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based crafts supply chain, from filing their own challenge.

Hobby Lobby is a large chain of craft stores owned by conservative evangelical Christians. It sued in federal court, claiming it should have the right to deny coverage for emergency contraception to over 13,000 employees in 40 states. Its owners, the Green family, claim that Obamacare’s requirement to provide employer-based coverage for contraceptive service violated freedom of religion and speech.

The lawyers carrying the Greens case went further than just raise religious objections. They also cited some of the factually mistaken arguments seen in other anti-abortion fights, referring to emergency contraception as an “abortion-causing drug.” Morning-after pills do not end a pregnancy, but act as daily birth control pills do to prevent fertilization from occurring.

President Obama defended the law’s birth control provision, saying “it is not fair” for religious employers to deny access to contraceptive services to their non-religious employees. In response to Monday’s ruling, it is possible that the White House will seek to create an administrative rule that would cover the cost of contraception denied by these religious employers, lawyers following the case said.  

But the issue here is larger than just religious objections to Obamacare. The precedent, as Justice Ginsburg noted, that a corporation can assert religious freedom rights under the First Amendment opens a Pandora’s box of possible resistance to other federal mandates. 

UCLA Law School's Adam Winkler, writing in the Huffington Post, said that corporate religious rights under the First Amendment are now more powerful than individual rights of privacy, and asked aloud, which target, after women's access to contraception, would be targeted by the religious right?

"LGBT people may be next," he wrote. "Remember a few months ago when Arizona almost adopted a controversial law that would have given business corporations a broad right to use religion to make claims for exemptions from the law? That proposed law was rightly seen as an attack on LGBT rights, as supporters insisted that business owners who object to same-sex marriage shouldn't be forced to bake cakes, take pictures, or arrange the flowers at such ceremonies. After Hobby Lobby, now all business corporations have a right under federal law to claim religious-based exemptions to all sorts of laws."

The ruling is the second time that the Court’s so-called conservatives have issued rulings seeking to undercut Obamacare. Its prior ruling that states do not have to expand their Medicaid programs, which offer health care to the poor, has left millions of low-income Americans without preventative health coverage—and so have to visit emergency rooms in crises.


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