July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am


Court upholds religious freedom

The High Court says Hobby Lobby can withhold some birth control from insurance plans because of owners' beliefs

The Hobby Lobby ruling has inspired hyperbole on both sides of the contraception debate. (Sue Ogrocki / AP)

As soon as the Supreme Court decided the closely watched Hobby Lobby case Monday, the social media universe erupted with reactions in support and opposition. Conservatives on the court rightly ruled in favor of the craft store chain, saying such family business owners shouldn’t have to provide some kinds of birth control coverage if it violates their religious beliefs.

Hobby Lobby owners David and Barbara Green didn’t believe they should be forced by the government, under the Affordable Care Act, to violate their faith by including company health insurance to cover four drugs and devices which may induce an early abortion. They faced annual fines of $475 million if they didn’t comply.

The court’s 5-4 decision found that individuals do not lose their religious freedom when they open a family business. The majority ruled that closely held for-profit businesses with owners who have strong religious beliefs could opt out of the government’s birth control mandates.

The four more liberal justices, including the three women on the court, opposed the ruling because they think it could allow for further religious-based challenges that limit individual rights. In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, she wrote the ruling would disadvantage employees who don’t share their employer’s religious beliefs.

In their legal challenge, the Greens objected to covering intrauterine devices and morning-after pills, and they argued the mandate violated their rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This case wouldn’t have been necessary if the Obama administration had offered employers more flexibility rather than the rigid mandates.

Many women employees have an expectation of contraceptive coverage, and Hobby Lobby is still providing 16 of the 20 Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives under the Health and Human Services Department mandate.

The health reform law requires that all businesses provide the contraceptives and other services for women free of charge to employees through their insurance plans. Churches are exempt from the mandate, but the administration didn’t rule out religiously affiliated hospitals, charities and colleges.

“This is a landmark decision for religious freedom,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and counsel for Hobby Lobby.

The Becket Fund, a nonprofit legal institute that protects the free expression of faith, has defended for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby as well as nonprofit religious organizations that are negatively affected by the health care overhaul’s insurance mandates. Fifty-one nonprofits have filed cases against the birth control requirements along with 49 for-profits.

Given the Hobby Lobby decision, the Becket Fund argues the mandate may be struck down in nonprofit cases, too. The court rejected the government’s argument that there was no burden on religious freedom because only third parties use the drugs. And it argued the government could pay for contraception coverage, rather than force private employers to do so in these cases.

The Obama administration is already considering its options to make sure all women who want free birth control can get it. The government will likely either cover the expense directly or force insurance providers to pay for it, as it does now for qualifying nonprofits.

In 2012, President Barack Obama offered this “compromise” to religious nonprofits, but it has done little to appease critics. Rather than provide the birth control themselves, these organizations have to sign certification allowing their insurance to provide the coverage. That’s still too much involvement for groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who care for the elderly poor. They received an injunction earlier this year from the Supreme Court.

Immediately following the court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, Progress Michigan expressed outrage over the decision, saying the Supreme Court sided with corporations over women. And Democratic lawmakers like Michigan’s Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer called the decision another “blow” to women, and used the opportunity to fundraise for women candidates.

The rhetoric is heated, but in reality, most employer-provided health plans already include full birth control coverage. And nothing is stopping women who work for employers like Hobby Lobby from seeking contraceptives elsewhere.

Given the importance of individual freedoms in this country, the Supreme Court was right to uphold the ability of people like the Greens to run a business without violating their beliefs.