Monday's 5-4 ruling impacts religious expression, corporate rights, health care
The decision evokes partisan reaction, some of it bitter
Gay marriage, employer-provided health care could come into question
Analyst: "It's the beginning of a conversation"
A Supreme Court ruling that involves abortion, followed by raucous reaction on both sides of the nation’s most divisive social issue.
This week’s Hobby Lobby decision had a familiar sense of partisan frenzy surrounding it, but the long-term impact extends far beyond abortion law.
Demonstrators on both sides sought to influence the continuing evolution of policy and legislation involving religious expression, corporate rights, health care and even same-sex marriage.
Monday’s 5-4 high court ruling allowed some family-owned or other closely held businesses to opt out of a federal requirement to pay for contraceptives in health coverage for their workers.
Owners of Hobby Lobby and another company argued the mandate in President Barack Obama’s health care reforms forced them to violate deeply held religious principles because they believe some of the contraceptives amount to abortion.
The high court’s five conservative justices agreed, saying the government had alternatives for ensuring the workers got the full coverage protested by their employers.
Afterward, supporters of the ruling hailed it as a victory for religious freedom.
“The court reaffirmed that American families don’t give up their constitutional right to religious freedom just because they open a family business,” said Lori Windham, the attorney for Hobby Lobby.
For their part, women’s rights groups called it a blow against equality under the law.
“I think immediately, tens of thousands of women who are employees of these companies will either be out of their birth control or will absolutely have to double pay, because we already pay and that adds up at the end of the month,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choise America.
Exacerbating the distress of opponents was the political affiliations of the voting justices, with five who made the ruling appointed by Republicans while the four opposing it – including all three women on the high court – were appointed by a Democratic president.
“This is an ideological divide,” noted Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. “I know people have been talking about the gender of the justices. But this is more ideological than chromosomal divide. These are people who are following well-established philosophies.”
Reaction in social media also reflected that divide. Angry opponents of the decision fired off insulting tweets to SCOTUSblog.com, mistakenly thinking it was the high court’s website rather than an independent website that covers it.
“You worship the God of money, and you dishonor the robe in the process,” one Twitter post said.
Comments on news websites also devolved into bitter attacks.
On CNN’s website, a message from the handle Matt McConnell said Hobby Lobby “hates people who make different choices” than the fundamental Christianity of its owners.
“Nice version of morality. Sharia Law Tea Party Style,” the post said.
“If you want to run a huge company in a free country, accept the fact that you will hire people, not slaves,” it went on. “And, as horrific as it may seem, some of those people may have different beliefs. Crazy huh? Wild. Insane. Wacky. Nuts, Bananas.”
In response, a message from the handle qualityrkc agreed that workers weren’t slaves, saying they could go elsewhere if they didn’t like Hobby Lobby’s stance.
“Give freedom a chance”
“You need to develop a greater respect for freedom of association, ownership rights, and freedom from the fed forcing you to violate your principles,” the post said. “Give freedom a chance dude.”
Meanwhile, advocates on both sides argued the broader stakes involved.
Republican Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the home state of the Hobby Lobby chain of more than 570 outlets, said the core issue was individual religious expression.
To a business owner, the high court ruling means “you have the opportunity to be able to live out your faith, not just have a faith, but to actually practice that faith as well,” he told CNN.
Critics, however, said the decision increased already expanded rights for corporations provided by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that unshackled corporate political spending.
“What this ruling does is it moves in the direction this court has been moving already, which is talking about corporate personhood – really treating corporations like people, saying that the corporation has a religion itself and that should be imposed on its employees,” said Emily Tisch Sussman of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Some also warned of a multitude of new legal challenges based on the same principle of deeply held religious beliefs by owners of closely held corporations, which comprise the majority of American businesses.
Gay marriage next?
“I’m guessing it’s now inevitable that we’ll see lawsuits from religiously owned companies saying, ‘The owners of this company have a deep religious objection to paying health benefits for a same-sex spouse; that’s against our religion,’ ” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an interview posted on the organization’s website. “Based on this decision, that lawsuit will get traction. So I think gay marriage is going to come up very fast.”
A longer-range impact could involve the further evolution of government-provided health care in America.
Ezekiel Emanuel, a former health care adviser to Obama, told CNN that the Hobby Lobby ruling raises awareness among Americans of the challenges and limitations in having most people get their health insurance through their employer.
Obama’s health care reforms introduced the public to government health insurance exchanges, and now people might be more open to other options instead of depending on their employer for health coverage.
“There does become, I think, an increasing argument that, look, the best thing is for individuals to decide how they get their health insurance now, without employers telling them what’s on the services being covered and the services not being covered,” said Emanuel, the brother of Chicago mayor and former Obama top aide Rahm Emanuel.
“I think this adds one more pebble to the balance between is it better for employers to continue to cover or is it better for people to, say, get a voucher or a defined contribution from their employer and shop in an exchange on their own, so they’re not restricted by their employer as to what they can buy and what they can’t buy,” he told CNN.
Despite the chorus of reaction, Rauch of Brookings said Monday’s ruling launched a debate on limits of policies and legislation rather than reinterpreting the Constitution.
“The bottom line is nobody should hyperventilate about this ruling,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a conversation about where to draw these lines, not the end of a conversation.”