Across country there has been a storm of lawsuits. They reflect contested rights as some businesses and institutions ask for express legal permission to use religion to discriminate based on sexual orientation, sex and gender identity.
Just over a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate could not be applied to Hobby Lobby, a secular, for-profit corporation with religious objections to four of some twenty types of contraception. The Christian-owned craft store operates nearly 600 stores and employs well over 13,000. The company donates ten percent of its profits to charities, and last year it raised the minimum wage for full-time workers to $14 an hour.
A significant portion of the firm’s employees are women. Unfortunately, the ruling means that employees who do not share their employers’ religious beliefs can be denied access to contraceptive coverage. Put another way, the decision means that “faith” can dictate healthcare policy regardless of the impact of that faith on employees.
The court’s decision marks the first time that it has allowed commercial business owners to deny employees a federal benefit to which they are entitled by law based on the owners’ religious beliefs. The company’s religious exemption claim from the ACA contraceptive mandate appears hypocritical. The company went along with coverage of these same contraceptives when they provided private insurance for their employees. The company, then, provided the very kind of health coverage it finds impossible to reconcile with its religious beliefs before the ACA existed.
While filing a lawsuit against the ACA contraception mandate, the company, ironically, also spent millions of dollars on an employee retirement plan that invested in the manufacturers of the same contraception products cited in the lawsuit. The company’s retirement accounts show investment in companies that develop, market, and sell contraceptives.
If the company really wants to ensure that they are anti-abortion in every way, it should provide employees with paid parental leave. This would make the company a corporate leader.
Never before has the court been so firmly divided along partisan lines, with all of the Republican appointees more conservative than all of the Democratic ones. It should be noted, too, that protests to the court’s decision have come from a wide variety of religious denominations.
According to the government, nearly thirty million women receive birth control as a result of the health care law. Critics say the ruling discriminates against women, the vast majority of whom will use birth control at some point in their lives.
The ruling raises other issues, too, by opening the door to all manner of claims that a company can refuse employment and accommodations based on its owner’s religion. Other questions about the startling breadth of the decision come to mind. Doesn’t the decision allow employers to get between women and their doctors? Can LGBT people be denied access to services? Could the ruling harm those who experience domestic violence? What happens now to the line between religion and the state?
Leonard Pitts, Jr., a Miami Herald columnist, called the court’s decision “frightening” because it involves “the imposition of religion masquerading as freedom of religion.” Meanwhile, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu wrote, “America is a pluralistic nation without a state religion, and the government is not allowed to pick and choose which religions can claim certain rights or exemptions.”
The company has a right to consider certain forms of birth control immoral. It does not have a right to make contraceptive decisions for everyone they employ. Religious liberty properly belongs to individuals and religious institutions, not to for-profit corporations. Religious liberty gives you the right to make decisions for yourself, not for others.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U.S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.