U.S. Supreme Court rules Hobby Lobby, other ‘closely held’ companies can object to contraception on religious grounds
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday in favor of Hobby Lobby and two other family-owned companies that sought to withhold insurance coverage for certain types of contraceptives because it conflicted with the owners’ faith, representing a victory for religious freedom to some and a setback for medical freedom to others.
In this case, the owners of the three closely held companies involved said they opposed certain contraceptives that operate after conception – including intrauterine devices (commonly referred to as “IUDs”) or the morning-after pill – and objected to providing health coverage for such measures. They alleged that the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate violated their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the First Amendment. The mandate requires that employers cover “preventive care and screenings” related to reproductive health and provided exemptions for religious nonprofit organizations, but not for for-profit companies.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that the contraceptive mandate “as applied to closely held corporations” did indeed violate the religious freedom act.
Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion, wrote that “protecting the free exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those corporations.” He also wrote that the decision would apply only to contraception coverage and wouldn’t allow employers to use religion as an excuse to, say, engage in racial discrimination.
But on the other side, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed concerns that the ruling could open the door for companies to oppose other health provisions – including blood transfusions, antidepressants or vaccinations – by claiming religious objections. She also criticized “the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood.”
It was unclear yesterday whether this ruling would conflict with New Hampshire’s existing contraceptive mandate, which was passed in 1999. At present, Hobby Lobby’s only New Hampshire location is in Manchester.
Some cheer, others question
State and national organizations supporting religious freedom applauded the court’s decision.
Bryan McCormack, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research in New Hampshire, said his organization was also “impressed and excited to see the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious conscious.” Cornerstone lists “protect innocent human life from conception to natural death” as one of its 2014 Family First Legislative Priorities, according to its website.
“This is a family case,” McCormack said. “This is about a family or a corporation who have been forced by the extensive burden of a financial penalty to go against their beliefs.”
Individual families like those involved in this case should “have the freedom to operate within the context of what they believe religiously” both at home and in the workplace, he said.
New Hampshire Right to Life praised the ruling on its Facebook page as “a victory for all pro-life Americans.”
Even if the ruling ends up affecting only a small group of employees at Hobby Lobby and other closely held companies in the state, Jennifer Frizzell, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s vice president of public policy, said that’s still too many.
“Those women who are affected by this ruling will have real consequences,” she said.
Frizzell and other advocates for women’s health across New Hampshire uniformly called the decision disappointing, describing it as a measure that interferes in a choice that should be left to a woman and her doctor.
What’s more, said Women’s Fund of New Hampshire Executive Director Marianne Jones, the ability to access a full range of reproductive health options isn’t just a medical issue – nor is it one that affects women alone.
“The ability for men and women to control when and how many children they have is about economic security,” Jones said. “While women actually bear the children, these choices actually affect men as well.”
Jones and Frizzell both said contraceptives can be expensive when paid for entirely out of pocket. The Ginsburg dissent estimates a cost upwards of $1,000 for insertion and related visits related to IUDs. And emergency contraception, another method opposed by the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby suit, is especially critical in cases where women are raped, Frizzell said.
Marlene Goldman, director of clinical research for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, also said contraceptives are “more economical and more cost-effective” than an unwanted pregnancy.
“Contraceptives save lives,” said Goldman, who also teaches obstetrics and gynecology as well as community and family medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. “We have fought long and hard to make contraception available to all women. It leads to healthier lives, healthier babies, babies who are wanted and healthier mothers.”
In this ruling, Goldman said, “The message to women is basically that they’re doing something wrong rather than seeking the protection they deserve.”
Citizens United extension?
This ruling, said Corcoran, of UNH Law, raises some of the same policy concerns about an imbalance between the rights of an individual relative to the rights of corporations that have come up in other cases before the court.
“This is, in some ways, an extension of Citizens United to women’s health,” she said, noting that the decision seems to afford companies “more protections than the average person would have on their own.”
In the majority opinion, Alito wrote that the federal government “effectively dispatches any argument” that the term “person” couldn’t apply to the companies involved in this case because it previously conceded that it could apply to a nonprofit.
“No known understanding of the term ‘person’ includes some but not all corporations,” Alito wrote.
In the past, as Ginsburg notes in her dissent, the court has not uniformly allowed employers to opt out of compliance with certain regulations because of their faith. In a case that came before the decision that served as the basis of the religious freedom act, she writes, the court ruled that a man who was a member of the Old Order Amish could not opt out of Social Security tax requirements because they violated his faith.
Ginsburg cites the following line, in particular, from the court’s ruling in that earlier case: “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”
Like the landmark campaign finance ruling, Corcoran said this decision affirms certain protections for companies in a way it hasn’t before. “We can’t prevent them from giving money and we can’t compel them to provide access to women’s health that they deem to be in violation of their religious beliefs,” she said, paraphrasing the court’s position.
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)