On Monday, June 30, the Supreme Court ruled on the Hobby Lobby case. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that “closely held” (e.g., the majority of outstanding stock of a company is owned by five or fewer people) for-profit companies do not need to follow federal law requiring that insurance plans include contraception for female employees. The ruling was based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed to protect an individual’s free exercise of religion, and marks the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit entities have been said to be able to have religious freedoms.
Some conservatives on the religious right claim this is a victory for religious freedom, but a closer look tells us that that is not the case. The Court has found that an entity created by states for the sole purpose of generating profits can have religious beliefs that should be protected. But we all know that these legal entities cannot think, feel, or have faith. Yet the Supreme Court has said that they can.
The issue that prompted this case was contraception, but the precedent that this case sets is likely to extend well beyond this issue. Already, there are 48 closely held corporations that will likely automatically win their pending cases in lower court, and according to this NPR story, 9 out of 10 corporations in America are closely held. That’s an awful lot of “people” that have just been granted the ability to ignore laws they don’t like based on their religious convictions. What laws will these “people” decide to challenge next?
Furthermore, Hobby Lobby claimed its pro-life Christian religious beliefs were behind its desire not to cover birth control for its employees, but if its employees were denied contraception, the number of abortions in the United States would likely rise. In addition, much of Hobby Lobby’s merchandise comes from China, a country that exploits its workers, violates their rights, and that forces women to undergo abortions against their will. Christian individuals everywhere are asking why Hobby Lobby’s “Christian beliefs” should be applied to its workers when the corporation doesn’t extend them to its business practices. The reason is obvious and simple: Hobby Lobby’s purpose is to make money, not serve God.However, there is a silver lining in this decision. The justices did grant corporations religious protections, a very problematic ruling for many reasons, but they also found that the women who work for them should be guaranteed access to contraception by affirming the carefully-crafted “contraception accommodation” that the Affordable Care Act makes for religious non-profits. This affirmation, at least, is good news for non-profits such as churches, because it answers questions that many had about this protection offered through the ACA, such as whether it would hold up under review at all. The affirmation is clear in Justice Alito’s majority opinion, which states that the government can make the “contraception accommodation” available to for-profits with religious objections, as well as non-profits such as churches. He wrote, “that accommodation does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion and it still serves HHS’s stated interests.” Justice Kennedy expands on the accommodation, saying “the means to reconcile these two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation.”
So, the good news from this ruling is that women still have access to contraception that is covered by health insurance, and the protection of religious beliefs that the Affordable Care Act gives to non-profits has been affirmed. The issues to which we must now turn revolve around ensuring that women have access to contraception through action by the executive branch, and making sure that the Supreme Court does not overstep this narrowly-tailored decision, as well as that they are able to agree on how to use this decision as precedent in future cases. We must be cautious that this decision does not lead us even further down a slippery slope of granting religious protections to things that clearly cannot have religion or faith, or of denying women access to contraception altogether.
Madeleine Roberts is a current junior at Davidson College, double majoring in Political Science, and Gender & Sexuality Studies. She is currently a summer intern for The Eleison Group in Washington, DC.