What are unintended effects of SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision?
Throwing all judicial precedent out the window, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that for-profit corporations can have religious beliefs. In a 5-4 decision by five Roman Catholic males (and don’t tell me those two factors don’t count), the court ruled that a for-profit company that is “closely held” has the right to decide on and limit contraceptive coverage for its female employees, who otherwise would receive free prescription contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The decision was expected for two reasons. One, the questioning by the court’s five conservative justices when it heard the case suggested the outcome. Two, when the right wing went apoplectic in 2012 over the court’s upholding of the ACA, you figured it was just a matter of time before the five conservatives found a way to beat it down again. And as for being “closely held”: Koch Industries is closely held, and it employs 100,000 workers in 60 countries. What will the Koch brothers decide to do? No, this decision could affect quite a few women.
Medical groups were outraged by the decision. The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, just to name a few, saw the decision — correctly — as hurting women’s health care. All of these groups (and many more) had argued the government’s side during oral arguments in friend-of-the-court briefs. “Contraceptives that prevent fertilization from occurring, or even prevent implantation, are simply not abortifacients regardless of an individual’s personal or religious beliefs or mores,” said the amicus briefs, according to Medscape Medical News.
The ruling “intrudes on the patient-physician relationship,” said AMA President Robert Wah, MD. It “inappropriately allows employers to interfere in women’s health care decisions,” said ACOG President John Jennings, MD. According to AAFP President Reid Blackwelder, MD, the court may have set the stage for employers to deny coverage for a variety of services that conflict with religious teachings, never mind the scientific evidence supporting their need. “We have a precedent where someone can come forward and say vaccines are against their belief system.” he said.
ANA President Pamela Cipriano, PhD, also saw the socioeconomic effect. “This ruling places an unfair burden on some women, particularly those with lower incomes, who may not be able to access medically appropriate contraceptive care due to the additional expense.” she said.
The wording of the decision suggested that it was limited in scope. HA! The dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg correctly predicted that the decision opens the door to other objections to other laws on religious grounds. Already, according to an online story in The Atlantic, a group of religious leaders sent a letter to the White House, asking for more “deference” to the prerogatives of religion. “We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need,” the letter states.
This reference isn’t talking about contraception. It’s talking about an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So — if it’s OK for Hobby Lobby to tell female workers it won’t pay for birth control pills (even though it still covers Viagra), it must be OK for other groups to say their religious beliefs allow them to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the workplace. That’s essentially what the letter is saying, without spelling it out bluntly.
Ginsburg presciently saw this coming. Noting that a restaurant owner in a 1966 high-court case cited religious beliefs for not serving African Americans, Ginsburg said the majority ruling would not help lower courts field possible objections to vaccinations, antidepressants, and anesthesia, all of which are proscribed in one faith or another.
And what of the political fallout? Right-wing groups, Republicans, and Fox News were gleeful about the decision, mostly because it went against something that President Obama had done. But that ecstatic reaction may come back to bite them — big time.
“It’s all about the women, both in substance and politics,” argued Jill Lawrence in an online piece for Al Jazeera America. Nearly 60 percent of the public favors the contraception coverage mandate, according to a May 2014 tracking poll by the Kaiser Health Family Foundation. “More than 99 percent of sexually active women in their childbearing years have used contraception. You don’t want to pick a fight on this turf.”
Despite the possibility that insurance companies or the government could pay for the coverage instead, as has been suggested, Lawrence said it was a matter of principle. “Why should taxpayers foot the bill for this and future instances of corporations getting themselves exempted from following federal law? Why should women have to jump through hoops to get standard birth control? Why should a for-profit company with a diverse workforce have the right to pick and choose what parts of a federal law to observe? And can a corporate entity really hold religious beliefs, just like a person?”
“The court,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “has ventured into a minefield.” Oh, it’s just the beginning. And instead of a minefield, it may turn into a full-fledged land war.