Stuart Lind of Edina and Tom Janas of Delano are successful entrepreneurs who are committed to their Catholic faith. In 2001, Lind even called in a priest to consecrate his small Minnetonka medical-device firms to the "sacred heart of Jesus."
The two men have also joined a small group of employers nationwide in filing lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate for employees' health insurance. Along with the other plaintiffs, the two claim that providing plans covering contraceptives forces them to go against church teachings and their personal religious beliefs, violating their "statutory and constitutional rights." Lind previously provided plans with coverage for contraceptives, but he now says he didn't realize that was the case.
While the Lind/Janas suit is winding through the courts, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will weigh in on two similar cases, one brought by Hobby Lobby's evangelical Christian owners, the other by a Mennonite cabinet maker.
Supporters of Hobby Lobby and employers like Lind, who owns Annex Medical and another firm, and Janas, who has owned firms in the dairy industry, claim that a Supreme Court decision in their favor would strike a blow on behalf of religious freedom. The reality is that a ruling like this would undermine that freedom and one of the bedrock ideals on which this country was founded — that all are equal before the law.
A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby wouldn't merely shield an employer's religion but instead allow it to be used as a sword — a development that ought to alarm sincere champions of religious liberty.
In effect, the employer's beliefs would be held inherently more valuable than those of the employee's. Some might go even further, arguing that this would essentially force employees to abide by their employer's religious beliefs, particularly in the Hobby Lobby case — the craft store is an example of the type of employer whose workers may not be able to afford to buy contraception on their own.
Courts weighing other religious-liberty challenges understandably have been leery of allowing an employer's religious beliefs to exempt them from complying with other laws. In a 1990 ruling, Fourth Circuit judges rejected a Baptist-affiliated school's claim that it merited an exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act because paying men and women teachers equally violated officials' religious beliefs. The school gave raises to married men, but not to women, because officials deemed men the heads of households.
Those following the Hobby Lobby lawsuit should be similarly concerned that the Supreme Court may carve out an exemption to the ACA and allow employers to pick and choose their employees' medical coverage. Those who might be comfortable with the stance Lind and Janas are taking on contraception should realize that employers of other religions could also ask to withhold coverage if Hobby Lobby is successful.
For example, firms run by Christian Scientists or Jehovah's Witnesses might object to coverage for other conventional health care. This wouldn't just be a carve-out for Christians. Deference to one religion would necessitate deference to all.
It's also worth noting that health insurance is part of employee compensation. If workers elect to use coverage for birth control, it's the same as if they bought it with their own salaries. Lind and other executives don't have control over how their employees spend their wages. Why should they dictate personal decisions on using medical care compensation?
The Obama administration has already granted exemption to the birth-control coverage mandate for "houses of worship." That deference goes far enough and should not extend to for-profit businesses.
The Supreme Court's ruling, expected next summer, will be closely watched, not just because it's another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. A circuit court ruling for Hobby Lobby cited the Supreme Court's disturbing 2010 Citizens United ruling, which bars government restrictions on election spending by corporations, unions and associations, declaring that these entities have the same political speech rights as individuals. That decision allowed the super-rich to flood campaigns with money.
A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby could extend similar constitutional protections, broadening the troubling concept of corporate "personhood'' with unknown consequences for democracy. That would be a dubious legacy, one the justices would do well to steer away from.