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The Irony of the Supreme Court's 'Hobby Lobby' Decision

This ruling sounds like something that should’ve been reserved for churches and other religion-oriented organizations, not an arts and crafts retailer and a cabinet manufacturer.

July 1, 2014
Related Topics: Policies and Procedures, Benefits, Legal

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores on June 30, a corporation and a human being share the unique ability to practice religion.

In a 5-4 vote, the high court found that Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts retailer owned by the deeply religious Green family, does not have to provide a health care plan that includes birth control after the Green family claimed doing so would violate their religious beliefs. The Court’s decision also settled a similar case brought by the Hahns, another religious family that owns a cabinet-manufacturing plant in East Earl, Pennsylvania, called Conestoga Wood Specialties.

Both families appealed to the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993 to win their case. The RFRA’s initial intention was to protect individual rights to religious freedoms, and was not meant to be applied to a corporation’s exercise of religion.

But five Supreme Court Justices don’t see it that way.

“Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged [Health and Human Services] regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito, who penned the majority opinion for the court.

This opinion appears to be in line with what I’ve learned about First Amendment rights in the workplace: A company can exercise free speech by terminating employees that do not fit the culture or image the company is trying to project to the public. For instance, Mozilla’s ex-CEO Brendan Eich “voluntarily resigned” after it was discovered he donated $1,000 to the campaign for California’s anti-gay legislation Proposition 8. Another example is Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was banned from the NBA for his alleged racist comments.

However, those situations were not legal matters settled in the court system. And really, I just see two giant corporations responding to consumer demand —  given that Eich’s donation came two years prior to his appointment as CEO, and that Sterling’s racism was well-documented in the legal system years before he was finally ousted by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

What’s most concerning to me is that the Supreme Court has given corporations a way to purposefully impact the reproductive health of their female employees, as well as legal avenues to potentially impact the overall health of all their employees on the grounds of “religious expression.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the four dissenting judges in this case. She wrote that the decision sets a precedent that "invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith."

Even though this decision seems like it will only affect a small amount of “sincerely religious” companies like Hobby Lobby, I still think it’s an important decision for employers nonetheless, for a variety of reasons.

No organization — private or public — has the right to dictate if, when or how somebody should have sex. That’s a personal health decision, which, through the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has provided women a way to manage in whatever way they choose: take a plan that offers contraception or don’t. The freedom of choice lies with the individual.

Further, this ruling, as Justices Elena Kagan and Ginsburg predicted during oral arguments, established a precedent that allows any medical procedure to be evaluated in a court under the RFRA. If contraception violates sincerely held religious beliefs, what about vaccinations or blood transfusions, they wondered? In their opinion, a win for Hobby Lobby provides no universal way to determine if a medical procedure violates a sincere religious belief.

"The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” wrote Ginsburg.

And finally, the great irony I see in this situation is that the Supreme Court’s decision — by protecting the Green family’s free exercise of religion — gives companies like Hobby Lobby the chance to impose their religious beliefs on employees through their health benefits packages. The Green family will now be allowed to impose their own religious beliefs on female Hobby Lobby employees – who may disagree with the family when it comes to religion – by denying those employees easy access to contraception. What about a woman’s right to practice a religion different than the Green’s – or even no religion, for that matter?

This ruling sounds like something that should’ve been reserved for churches and other religion-oriented organizations, not an arts and crafts retailer and a cabinet manufacturer. Because a corporation is not a person.

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