In the name of freedom of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday extended the reach of employers’ religious beliefs into working Americans’ lives. Its 5-4 ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby was a blow to women’s reproductive rights and to the Affordable Care Act’s preventive-care coverage requirement.
The decision also gave the meaning of freedom of religion a perverse twist. While the Constitution forbids government from imposing religion on Americans, the high court’s majority found nothing objectionable about bosses imposing their religious tenets on employee health insurance benefits, regardless of those employees’ religious views.
On its face, the 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision may have been confined to contraception coverage under the ACA. In effect, it creates a new religion-based exclusion for family-owned corporations from the ACA requirement that preventive medical coverage be covered in full by the insurance packages that large employers provide.
That’s bad enough, especially for those who work for employers who consider some or all forms of contraception sinful. Those employees are free to buy contraception themselves, of course. But for low-wage workers at employers like Hobby Lobby, that cost burden can be substantial — and unfair.
But Monday’s ruling also seems likely to encourage corporations to challenge other federal laws on religious grounds. The majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito seeks to minimize that possibility. Alito cast Hobby Lobby as a narrow decision rooted in a 1993 federal law, which he said trumped the ACA in part because the ACA exempts religious institutions from its contraceptive coverage mandate. Having made that exception, government could and should make another for religiously motivated for-profit corporations, Alito wrote.
Yet Alito’s insistence that for-profit corporations are persons under the law seems to invite more “personal” freedom claims by employers — though Alito specified that religion won’t pass muster as a federal tax dodge. As for other laws employers find burdensome and can tie to religion, it appears to be open season in the nation’s federal courts — or so fretted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the four-justice minority.
Defenders of women’s rights reacted to the ruling with understandable outrage. Allowing an employer to refuse to cover a health service as basic — and as plainly preventive — as contraception or allowing an employer to choose which type of contraception merits coverage reverts to an earlier, darker age in attitudes about women’s role in reproduction. Women have reason to be alarmed that the court majority did not give more weight to the health benefits of preventing unwanted pregnancies.
But Americans for whom childbearing is not a personal issue also have reason for concern about the Hobby Lobby ruling. It fits a recent Supreme Court pattern of decisions that favor business interests over competing concerns. Alito’s corporate personhood treatise in Monday’s decision is reminiscent of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the 2010 Citizens United case, which opened a floodgate of corporate spending on political campaigns in the name of freedom of speech.
Americans prize their constitutional guarantees of freedom from government interference with speech and thought. It will be a shame if the branch of government entrusted to safeguard those freedoms is remembered as the one that gave a green light to more corporate interference in those very realms.