Monday, June 30, 2014

Meet Hobby Lobby, A Corporate Person with Religious Rights

Samuel Alito, a Justice in the Supreme Court of the United States handed American corporations nicely wrapped gifts this morning!  One decision makes unionizing a little bit harder in the public sector.  The less countervailing power workers have the better the life for the employers:  Wages and benefits will stay lower and that's good for the profit motive!
Another decision, the Hobby Lobby one, states that a for-profit firm is a person with religious rights, as long as it is a closely held corporation.  Some ninety percent of corporations are closely held.  Hobby Lobby has 23,000 employees and 578 stores, but it is still closely held. 

Alito argues in the majority opinion of the Court that Hobby Lobby is a mere extension of the Christian religious beliefs the owning family holds, and those beliefs include the assumption that certain contraceptives are not contraceptives at all but cause abortions.  Therefore, all the 578 Hobby Lobby stores hold those same beliefs (whether science-based or not), and all the 578 Hobby Lobby stores are allowed to be exempt from the Affordable Care Act requirement that women's contraceptive needs should be covered without out-of-pocket costs.  That's a mighty big person.

Alito bases this on an expansion of religious rights to for-profit firms and the suggestion that the female employees of Hobby Lobby could be offered contraceptive coverage through some other means and not through the firm's health insurance policies.

Here's the part of the majority (the five Conservatives of the Court) opinion which made my teeth hurt:

In any event, our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate. Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance- mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs.  Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.

A narrowly tailored SCOTUS decision?  So narrowly tailored that only women fit into it?  I'm not a lawyer, but this looks odd to me.  Is Alito saying that this case cannot ever be used as a precedent for anything else?  That lack of access to contraception has no societal effects of the kind refusal to vaccinate might have?  That contraceptives are never used for the treatment of medical illnesses?

The dissent by Ruth Bader Ginsburg is well worth reading, despite its length (or check out the summaries here and here).  She addresses the use of contraceptives for medical illnesses, the radical expansion of religious rights to for-profit corporations and she points out the health value of avoiding unplanned pregnancies.  She also discusses the important differences between for-profit companies, even family owned ones, and religious non-profits.

Then there's the fact that this "narrowly tailored decision" was about beliefs having to do with what might be taking place in those hidden uteri, and the equally astonishing fact that none of the five Justices in the majority happen to have uteri.  On the other hand, they all share the same religion with strong views against contraception.  Those views may not have mattered among the reasons for the decision, but it's hard for me to understand why contraception is singled out from all possible religious opposition to generally prevailing laws of the country.