Opinion

02.24.14

Arizona’s Anti-Gay Bill and Hobby Lobby Case Aren’t About Religious Freedom

With Arizona’s recent anti-gay bill and the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on whether businesses can deny employees access to birth control, corporations are getting a free pass to discriminate, says Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.
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Joshua Roberts / Reuters, � Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The Arizona State Legislature passed a bill last week that would allow businesses to refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people based on the owner’s personal beliefs. Specifically, the bill—which now goes to the governor to sign or veto—would give businesses the same rights of religious exercise that individuals and churches have. That the state of Arizona would let businesses turn away members of the LGBT community is unacceptable.

But it’s not just Arizona. Similar bills have been proposed In Kansas, Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

And it’s not just LGBT rights.

On March 25, the Supreme Court will hear two cases from for-profit corporations—Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products—that claim a religious right to deny their employees birth control coverage to which they are legally entitled under their health insurance plans. These are cases that could deny millions of women access to affordable birth control and set a dangerous precedent allowing businesses to deny their employees a whole host of other medical procedures and treatments to which they are legally entitled, based on the employer’s personal beliefs.

We’re not talking about religious organizations—we’re talking about corporations and commercial businesses. We’re talking about the guy who’s made a living selling needlepoint kits, glitter glue, and artificial topiaries deciding whether his employees should have access to affordable birth control.

We’re talking about the guy who’s made a living selling needlepoint kits, glitter glue, and artificial topiaries deciding whether his employees should have access to affordable birth control.

These cases are alarming on their face—and because of what they could mean going forward. A decision in favor of Hobby Lobby would create a slippery slope, giving employers the right (for the first time ever) to refuse to cover specific medical treatment because they don’t agree with it. That could expand to include anything from birth control to mental health services, vaccines, blood transfusions, HIV/AIDS treatment, cancer treatment, surgeries—the list goes on.  

Consider the Arizona bill a sneak preview of the much broader impact Hobby Lobby and Conestoga could have across the country. It’s a terrifying prospect that reaches beyond private medical decisions and into people’s everyday lives and their ability to fill a prescription for birth control. Will their ability to go out and get a slice of pizza, or go see a movie, be taken away next?

Why have a proposed state law and two yet-to-be-decided court cases captured international attention and sparked national outrage? Because what’s happening in Arizona and in the boardrooms of national corporations like Hobby Lobby is fundamentally at odds with where we are as a country—and who we are. The same birth control the owners of Hobby Lobby want to deny their employees is so controversial that 99% of women who have been sexually active — including 98% of Catholic women — have used it at one point in their lives.

The vast majority of the American public wants women to make their own personal medical decisions and wants same-sex couples to be treated with equality and dignity. If this feels like a fight, that’s because it is: a fight between those who would rewind the clock 50 years and those who don’t want to go back.

Religious organizations are already exempt from having to provide birth control to their employees, and no church can be forced to marry a same-sex couple. This isn’t about religious freedom. It’s about whether corporations should be given a license to discriminate against a wide range of people, and we’re hopeful that the Supreme Court will turn back this extreme over-reach this spring.

One Arizona business owner summed it up perfectly: “Opening the door to government-sanctioned discrimination, regardless of why, is a step in the wrong direction.”

Couldn’t have put it better.