This morning, Monday, June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Woods, and against the Obama Administration (and arguably many working women) in the case concerning the contraception mandate within the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The court held that “closely held” businesses can refuse to pay for certain forms of contraception for their workers if they find them “morally repugnant” for religious reasons.
Just as notable: this decision confirms that Congress defies corporations as “people,” and, apparently, they are also people who can hold religious beliefs dear. While the decision does limit itself to “closely-held” corporations, that includes more than half of the companies in the United States, on the numbers.
The decision itself is given piecemeal, reflecting the difficulty of the issue itself as well as the lack of agreement between the justices on the various nuances of the case. The majority argues that this decision does not mean that the rule can be extended so that employers can declare that they have religious objections to vaccines, blood transfusions, equal pay for equal work, or paying taxes.
The majority ruling also states that women who work employers that refuse contraception coverage won't have to pay for it themselves because the federal government will still be able to cover it. For this reason the opinion argues that this ruling will have little impact on the ACA.
However, the dissenting justices are not convinced that the opinion will have harmless effect and appear to feel that it will lead to other, serious problems. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the majority ruling is tantamount to the court choosing which religious beliefs are worthy: “…how does the Court divine which religious beliefs are worthy of accommodation, and which are not?” she asked.
Ginsberg and her minority, which included all of the female justices on the court, also agreed with critics of the decision, pointing out that a dangerous precedent could be set by the decision which will not be limited to this one simple area: “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage?”
Political reactions to the ruling have been strong. The White House through Josh Earnest, the press secretary, said that the Hobby Lobby ruling has in effect created a group of women who no longer have equal access to contraceptive coverage because of the religious views of their bosses: “President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves, rather than their bosses deciding for them. Today's decision jeopardizes the health of women that are employed by these companies.”
This pits their right to health against an inherently personal right, the right to free exercise of religion, which is playing out in the workplace. Earnest indicated that the administration believes it is the duty of Congress to take action to address this problem, but that action from the executive branch was also possible: “We’ll consider whether there is an opportunity for the president to take some action that could mitigate this as well.”
Nevada Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, responded to the Hobby Lobby decision: “If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will. We will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room.”
California Democrat and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called the decision an “outrageous step against the rights of America's women.” Pelosi continued: “Women should not be forced to jump through extra hoops to secure the fundamental health care they need. Allowing employers and CEOs to limit the health care available to employees is a gross violation of their workers' religious rights. It's just not her boss' business.”
Reactions from advocates on the ground have been equally passionate. Healthcare reform advocate Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, stated: “The decision leaves unchanged the key features of the historic Act.. . .Women enrolling in coverage through a health insurance marketplace retain coverage for contraception as well as other preventive health care services.”
Other advocates focus on the decision as a victory for religious freedom; Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents Hobby Lobby, commented to the press: “It makes clear that this is not end of contraception for women. If the government wants to provide it then the government can provide it.”
Many women's rights and public health groups are disturbed by the Hobby Lobby ruling, and found the majority's attempts to limit the ruling's impact unsatisfactory.
Public health and women’s rights groups were also not comforted by Alito’s attempts to limit the ruling’s ramifications.
Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, commented: “I think it is surprising but also disturbing that we would have five male justices rule that discrimination against women is not discrimination at all.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, remarked: “This is a deeply troubling decision. For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law.”
61% of Americans, the majority, support the ACA's contraception coverage according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in April.