Some early reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case suggested that the ruling is too narrow to cause much real harm. But given that the high court just said corporations are people with religious freedom rights, and those rights are more important than women’s health, it seems the decision is a likely Pandora’s Box.
In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said Hobby Lobby and other secular, closely held corporations (those with a limited number of shareholders) can ignore a federal law that requires them to offer health insurance plans to their employees that include no-cost birth control. The only thing corporate bosses have to do to opt out is claim their “sincerely held” religious beliefs put them in opposition to some medications.
When most people imagine “Corporate America,” they think of giant, publicly traded companies like Bank of America, Microsoft and General Motors. So the term “closely held corporations” probably doesn’t mean much to most people. But as Salon reported, these corporations actually make up more than 90 percent of all businesses in the U.S.
Plus, plenty of these closely held corporations are like Hobby Lobby, which has more than 500 locations and almost 20,000 employees. These are not just “mom-and-pop” stores with two employees (mom and pop).
Once you realize that, it becomes apparent how terrible this decision is.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized as much. In her dissent from the Hobby Lobby majority, Ginsburg explained that the court “has ventured into a minefield.”
“In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” she said.
Indeed, the decision leaves open the possibility that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law intended to shield religious minorities from burdens upon their beliefs caused by federal laws, is so powerful that it could supersede all sorts of anti-discrimination laws. This means some corporations could potentially discriminate against anyone they choose based on religion, gender or sexual orientation.
The decision also makes it possible for employers to deny coverage to much more than just birth control in the future. Perhaps one day bosses who don’t believe in blood transfusions, psychiatrists or even pills with gelatin coating will be able to stop their employees from receiving such treatments.
Although we will not likely know for some time just how damaging the Hobby Lobby ruling is, a federal court offered what could be a sneak peak at a very dark future.
Just hours after the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Eternal Word Television Network, a non-profit Catholic organization founded by a nun, does not have to comply with the birth control mandate for the time being. Numerous religious non-profits have challenged the mandate, but unlike secular for-profits, all the non-profits have to do is sign a form stating they oppose providing birth control to their employees. The federal government would then contract with a third-party to provide that coverage.
This matter is also likely to end up before the Supreme Court, and it’s hard to say what the outcome will be.
Ultimately it’s not clear how bad Hobby Lobby will be. Most likely additional court cases will be needed before the full scope of the ruling is understood. It could take decades for this to play out. It is clear, however, that a dangerous precedent has been set. Soon the very idea of “religious freedom” could be transformed from a noble concept to a tool of oppression.
If you get healthcare from your employer and you don’t know where your boss stands on various medical issues, you might want to find out. If you don’t like what he says, and you lose some healthcare benefits down the road, you have five misguided, male, Christian Supreme Court justices to thank.