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Corporations trump people in Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision [Editorial]

Minority GroupsLaws and LegislationFeminismCourts and the JudiciaryLobbyingHobbies

In recognizing that for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby can hold religious beliefs that trump secular laws like the Affordable Care Act's requirement that women have access to contraceptives without out-of-pocket costs, the Supreme Court has moved the nation in an unwelcome direction. Differentiating between religious organizations and private companies used to be a straightforward matter (and a practice dating back to English common law), but now that distinction is no longer so clear.

That new standard is potentially far more troubling than the immediate concerns raised by the court's 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby or any losing of face by President Barack Obama and supporters of the Affordable Care Act. In many ways, the Hobby Lobby lawsuit (and a companion case involving Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp.) had been misrepresented as just another attack in the Republican crusade against Obamacare.

Hobby Lobby is not a religious faith. Its 28,000 employees have rights, too. And now, apparently, those rights do not extend to having full access to those contraceptives that their employer deems a violation of faith — including IUDs and emergency birth control known as Plan B. Workers can still pay for such health care from their paychecks but not from their health benefits — both of which are supplied by their employer, of course.

The effect is certain to be a reduction in the use of contraceptives and an increase in unwanted pregnancy, which is associated with poverty, child abuse and many other social ills. This is the compelling government interest that the court's majority chose to ignore — we all benefit when women have better access to birth control. The majority's notion that access might be addressed some other way flies in the face of political reality. In essence, women's rights took a big hit Monday that the GOP-controlled House of Representatives isn't about to restore any time soon no matter what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempts to pass in his chamber.

All the more maddening is that the belief in question isn't even rational. Certain individuals believe Plan B, for instance, terminates a pregnancy, which it doesn't. ACA regulations don't mandate abortion coverage of any kind. Even Hobby Lobby's health insurance coverage used to include some of these same contraceptives (until Obamacare raised the issue of government mandates, generally, and Hobby Lobby dropped the coverage and filed suit). Politics appear to have, once again, trumped a woman's right to choose.

But it's worse than that. How many other statutes might now be trumped because the owners of a company can assert some religious view? Hard-fought rights to marriage equality might be ignored by companies that decide same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs. Might employers now claim that they can't be forced to provide health insurance for a same-sex spouse despite providing it for opposite-gender partners? Maryland's recently-passed law protecting transgender individuals from workplace or housing discrimination might not stand up to such a challenge from a family-owned company either.

Even Christian conservatives who are cheering Hobby Lobby's victory might change their minds if companies owned or managed by non-Christians start imposing their values on their workers regardless of government regulations. After all, some people object to vaccinations, psychiatric care and insurance coverage of any kind on religious grounds. Is the Supreme Court going to pick and choose which faiths must be respected and which will not? If so, that would be a real First Amendment debacle in the making.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed in her dissent, there are likely to be "untoward effects" of this decision despite the court's efforts to "cabin its language to closely held corporations." And as she also pointed out, refusing Hobby Lobby's claim would not tell the owners that their religious views are flawed but would have protected Americans from having their rights deprived. Like the Citizens United ruling which treats corporations as people for the purpose of political campaign contributions, the decision diminishes individual rights to elevate those associated with a private company.

All of which should be of greater interest than any political score card kept on President Obama or the Affordable Care Act, which, incidentally, has been racking up successes of late. The law has signed up more people than expected, attracted younger workers and reduced premiums while expanding coverage. Contraceptive coverage is a minor part of health care insurance, but what the court has done is to give birth to much bigger problems down the road.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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