Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores owned by devout Christians, could deny certain types of birth control to its employees on religious grounds. "The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield...
This store is a Christian, according to the Supreme Court. Photo via Flickr user Nicholas Eckhart
Today the Supreme Court’s session went out with a bang as it settled two cases on identical 5–4 partisan lines. The decision in Harris v. Quinn hurt public employees’ unions by refusing to let them automatically deduct dues from wages, and the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. allowed some companies to avoid paying for their workers’ birth control.
It’s the second one that everyone is shouting about today, and for good reason. To recap: Hobby Lobby is a chain of craft stores with 13,000 employees, 572 outlets, and billions in annual revenue. It’s run by the Green family, who aren’t exactly shy about their Christianity: According to the company's website, Hobby Lobby is committed to “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.” After the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. ObamaCare) passed, a federal agency ruled that employers were going to have to provide health-insurance plans that offered coverage for a range of birth-control options. A lot of these methods the Greens, like many other devout Christians, have no problems with, but they are super, super upset by techniques that, to quote the Supreme Court’s decision, prevent “an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus.” (These include Plan B and IUDs, which they think of as being equivalent to abortion.)
Now, a lot of people might find the belief that stopping a man’s sperm from meeting a lady’s egg is fine but stopping a fertilized egg from sticking to the uterus is AWFUL MURDER AND MUST BE STOPPED: a bizarre bit of hair-splitting. Those people might also note, as some have, that the owners of Hobby Lobby aren’t using these devices themselves, and they aren’t even paying for them directly—they’re paying for insurance plans that allow some women to get these horrible, no-good, very bad birth-control options. But the grounds on which the Greens challenged the ACA don’t require them to prove that their beliefs are correct; it’s enough that they feel that paying for certain kinds of plans is a sinful act. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which was passed in 1993 with Democratic support, for what that’s worth) says that laws can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless there’s a “compelling governmental interest” at stake and the law represents "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.. Since corporations count as people (yeah, I know, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), Hobby Lobby could claim with a straight face that its rights were being violated by the ACA, and the five more conservative justices could with a straight face concur. So presto change-o, the court has decided that companies that really, really want to deny certain types of health coverage to people can totally do that.
Naturally, it seemed to many liberals like the court was chipping away at a woman’s right to choose, and suitably strident statements appeared on Twitter minutes after the ruling was announced on Monday morning:
As usual, conservative Twitter appeared to inhabit an entirely different universe than the one that the left is a part of:
Professional advocates were similarly split. Atheists, of course, were upset; Amanda Metskas, the president of the Secular Coalition for America, said in a statement that “this is a sad day for anyone who believes in true religious freedom… This decision allows for-profit business owners to impose their religious preferences and practices on their employees, leaving the religious freedom of millions of Americans at the mercy of their individual employers.” In a similarly worded statement that shows how “religious freedom” means a lot of different things to different people, Lori Windham, an attorney for Hobby Lobby, said that “this is a landmark decision for religious freedom. The Supreme Court recognized that Americans do not lose their religious freedom when they run a family business.”
Despite all the post-hoc sturm und drang, the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito appears fairly narrow in many places. Not all businesses can be said to have religious beliefs, he writes, only “closely held” corporations, i.e., those that are mostly owned by five people or less—except, by some counts, that definition includes 90 percent of all businesses, which collectively employ 52 percent of working Americans. Similarly, this bit makes it sound like Alito is trying to limit the effect of the court’s ruling:
This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.
But in her dissent, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagrees with that reasoning, writing that the ruling lets corporations ignore laws that are “incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” She went on: “Would the exemption… extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]”
It doesn’t seem crazy, in the wake of this ruling, to ask what makes a belief that a certain kind of birth control is murder more valid than a belief that blood transfusions are against God’s will. You could argue that Alito avoids this question by saying that the real problem with the ACA is that it places an unjust burden on devoutly Christian companies—he suggests that the government could just pay insurance companies directly for those icky birth control procedures rather than force Hobby Lobby and others to fund what they consider aboritions. (There’s already an arrangement in place for religious nonprofits—they can fill out a form and have their plan administrator figure out how to give their female employees birth control without the nonprofit directly paying for it.) Except then you have to ask why forcing a Christian business to pay for insurance plans that give women birth control is a heinous crime, but it’s OK for using tax money (partially collected, presumably, from that business) to pay for the same procedures.
In fact, some Catholics have filed lawsuits because they are opposed to the idea Alito endorses, saying they “cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf.” And if the Greens’ beliefs are strong enough that the law needs to find a way to work around them, what about those of the Catholics? Won’t the Supreme Court, at some point, have to rule what definition of sin is valid? That’s rather worrying, as Ginsburg points out in her dissent.
"Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be 'perceived as favoring one religion over another,' the very risk the [Constitution's] Establishment Clause was designed to preclude," she writes. “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield."
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