Supreme Court allows corporations to deny birth control coverage

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that family-owned corporations can use religious objections to opt out of the Affordable Care Act requirement that they cover contraceptives for women. In a 5-4 ruling, with all liberal justices dissenting, the court said the health care law’s requirement violated a federal law protecting religious freedom.

The ruling came in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius. The court’s majority ruled, for the first time, that a for-profit corporation can have religion, that a corporation can have religious feelings that can be hurt, and that, if some of its employees take a pill to prevent pregnancy, that violate the corporation’s rights.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga currently cover contraceptives in their employee health plans, but the owners do not want to cover certain types of birth control – specifically “Plan B” and similar “morning after” pills that, they claim, prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted in the womb and developing into a fetus. The Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, notes that “owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation … do not so classify them.” In other words, the court majority has ruled that highly debatable theological/philosophical opinions by corporate owners can trump federal laws and regulations.

Hobby Lobby is a giant hobby and craft supplies chain store with 578 stores and about 21,000 employees across the country. It brings in about $3 billion in revenue annually. Hobby Lobby was ranked 147 in Forbes’ list of America’s largest private corporations in 2012. Its owner, David Green, was ranked 90 in Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in America. Green makes a point of publicizing his strong Christian beliefs. The Green family also owns Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain.

Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a cabinet-making business, has 1,000 employees in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Washington State. Its owners, Norman Hahn and his family, are Mennonites. Unlike Hobby Lobby, Conestoga’s owners do not broadcast their religious views on their website.

But both corporations challenged the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers of more than 50 employees provide their workers with health insurance that covers basic preventative care including equal, free access to contraception. The Obama administration added an exemption for churches and nonprofit religious organizations. That did not apply to for-profit, secular corporations like Hobby Lobby or Conestoga.

Justices Alito and Kennedy suggested that the administration had other ways to ensure women get contraception if they want it. The government could pay for the birth control, they said, or could provide the same kind of accommodation made for religious-oriented nonprofits. In such cases, the insurance company or a third-party administrator takes on the responsibility of paying for birth control.

But in dissenting, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor warned that the ruling would have wider negative effects. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

Ginsburg called the majority decision “potentially sweeping” because it minimizes the government’s interest in uniform compliance with laws affecting the workplace. “And it discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs,” Ginsburg said.

Terry O’Neill, head of the National Organization for Women, said the high court ruling amounted to support for bigotry. “A ‘belief’ that works to the detriment of a specific demographic group that has historically experienced discrimination is no more than a religious mask for bigotry,” she said in a statement. “The world has rejected the use of religion to justify racial and homophobic bigotry, and the same must be true for gender bigotry as well.”

Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards said in an email to supporters,”The five justices who ruled against women today are out of step with most Americans – the public overwhelmingly supports the birth control benefit by a nearly two-to-one margin.”

The Hobby Lobby case and similar legal challenges to Obamacare, cases that are seemingly limited in scope, are being trumpeted by right-wing sources as a crusade for religious freedom in the face of an oppressive secular government. It meshes with the far-right campaign to discredit not only the Obama administration, but any attempt at regulating corporate power in the public interest. Hobby Lobby was represented in its lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Among this fund’s board of directors are J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican former Ohio secretary of state denounced by Ohioans for obstructing and suppressing the vote in 2004; the president of the Catholic University of America; and figures connected with a range of right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute and the Witherspoon Institute.

In another blow to women’s health advocates, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled unanimously that 35-foot protective buffer zones around clinics that provide abortions are unconstitutional. That ruling overturned a Massachusetts state law that set such buffer zones to protect clinics in the wake of murders and assaults on abortion providers and their supporters.

Photo: Planned Parenthood Action Facebook page


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.