June 30, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Hobby Lobby ruling ignites debate among Michigan officials

Lansing— The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday allowing closely held private companies to deny female employees and dependents insurance coverage for birth control reignited the debate in Michigan over government-required health care coverage and religious freedom.

The high court’s 5-4 decision allows the owners of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby — which has 19 arts-and-crafts outlets in Michigan, including three in Metro Detroit — and other privately owned corporations to stop covering birth control medication and devices they deem akin to aborting a fetus.

Conservative groups and politicians hailed the ruling as a victory for those who hold moral beliefs against abortion and some forms of birth control.

“This case was much more about the proper role of government than about contraception and abortion-causing drugs,” said Barbara Listing, president of Right to Life of Michigan, the anti-abortion group. “No one should be fined for following their faith. And employees should not be unwillingly complicit in participating in health insurance which destroys members of the human family.”

Contraception is among a range of preventive services that must be provided at no extra charge under the health care law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010 and the Supreme Court upheld in 2012.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the decision is limited to contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs,” Alito said.

Alito suggested the Obama administration could ensure women get the contraception they want by simply paying for pregnancy prevention.

Monday’s ruling left abortion and women’s rights advocates dismayed by an erosion in the law’s mandate.

“It’s really unbelievable that we’re still fighting for access to birth control in 2014,” said Lori Lamerand, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. “A woman’s decision to use birth control should have nothing to do about her boss or her bosses’ beliefs. We can imagine a scenario where a woman has to lobby her boss to be able to use birth control pills.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed an amicus brief in support of lawsuits Hobby Lobby and another company brought against the Obama administration in protest of new rules requiring employers to cover contraceptives.

Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision said it essentially grants those corporations a personhood status by saying they can deny women access to forms of birth control they deem a form of abortion.

A Kalamazoo attorney vying for the Democratic nomination for attorney general chastised Schuette for getting involved in the case.

“(Schuette’s) argument is premised on the belief … that corporations are people, that corporations have religious liberties just like individual persons. I think that premise is wrong,” Mark Totten said in a Monday interview.

Schuette issued a statement Monday afternoon that quoted from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion with the court’s conservative justices.

“Today, the nation’s highest court has upheld the religious liberties and freedoms of individuals across this land,” Schuette said. “As Justice Kennedy stated today, ‘Among the reasons that the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion.’ ”

Planned Parenthood’s Lamerand and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, both suggested the high court’s ruling could give employers broad discretion over what kinds of medicines they can refuse to pay for based on religious beliefs.

“Alarmingly, the ruling also opens the door to the unnerving possibility that corporations could claim exemptions to various health and safety protections based on their asserted religious beliefs,” Conyers said in a statement.

Lamerand said employers could refuse to pay for insurance for HIV/AIDS medications for gay employees, citing religious beliefs.

“It seems to us this ruling would not prevent that,” she said.

But U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, countered that closely held firms that are owned by individuals or families “do not give up the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution simply by going into business and providing jobs.”

The congresswoman also said the court’s decision does not limit the rights of any American to use the form of birth control they choose just because a small employer decides not to cover certain services under employee health coverage.

The Associated Press contributed.