High Court Drama

In Hobby Lobby Ruling, a Court So Wrong in So Many Ways

Reliance on junk science, backwards ideas about religious freedom—it’s all there in the conservative majority’s ruling.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In its much-anticipated Hobby Lobby ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled by the usual 5-4 margin that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage. The ruling was narrowly tailored to apply only to the Obamacare contraception mandate and no other insurance mandates and explicitly does not shield employers who might rely on religious grounds to justify other discrimination. That said, while the ruling could have been worse, it's still dumb.

At the heart of both Hobby Lobby and its sister case Conestoga Wood is the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided health insurance plans include coverage for basic preventative care. The law outlines what such preventative care encompasses and includes contraception. Contraception is, after all, by definition prevention. But two private for-profit corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, both argued that for their insurance plans to be forced to cover contraception would violate the companies' freedom of religion. Hobby Lobby, which sells arts and crafts materials, is owned by devout Southern Baptists. Conestoga Wood, which makes wood cabinets, is owned by conservative Mennonites.

Both companies currently provide health insurance to their employees, which is what makes their plans subject to the preventative care requirements under Obamacare. And both companies say they don't object to all contraception, simply drugs or intrauterine devices that prevent pregnancy after fertilization, contraceptive methods that folks on the right mis-label and malign as "abortifacients." That characterization is factually, scientifically untrue. In fact, it's worth noting that Hobby Lobby actually provided the contraception coverage before it dropped it and decided to sue. For the Court to even get to its ruling that the contraception mandate "substantially burdens" the exercise of religion, it has to believe this bunk science. Moreover, in a free and secular society, birth control is about medicine and science and personal health, not religion.

The Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg bristles at the majority's "decision of startling breadth." Justice Kennedy tries to argue otherwise in his concurring opinion, arguing that the majority opinion "does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent." And yet majority opinion held that corporations are "persons" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act! That's huge! While the court limits part of its ruling around the contraception mandate to closely held corporations (defined by the IRS here), the essence of the decision is a profound and radical shift in corporate rights.

Further, the ruling in part eroded the distinction between religious non-profits (which were already exempted from parts of Obamacare) and private corporations. If you think going to the mall is like going to church, that makes sense. To everyone else, it's nuts.

The Supreme Court had already granted all kinds of other special rights and powers to corporations — including "corporate personhood" or the right for businesses to be treated as people under the law. And because corporations are people, the Court has ruled that corporate spending to influence elections is equivalent to speech and cannot be infringed. At a time when economic inequality is reaching record highs and support for big business is at an all time low, the Supreme Court has consistently seen fit to confer more and more power and privilege to already powerful and privileged corporations. At a time when we should be putting more checks and balances in place for corporate America, the Supreme Court is loosening the reins.

Moreover, this case is a perversion of religious freedom. Our values of religious freedom and tolerance were meant to protect individuals in our nation from the tyranny of government and business. Recall that in the earliest days of American history, it was not only the King of England but the powerful East India Company out from under the mutual thumb of which American colonists were trying to crawl. Moreover, as I have written previously, freedom of religion explicitly includes not only the freedom to practice one's religion but to be free from the imposition of someone else's religion. The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cannot be allowed to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

But it's the conflation of these points that is truly frightening: the idea that in continuing to give corporations more and more unchecked power and reign, we are giving them the power of religious tyranny — the ability to wantonly and unilaterally impose religion as they see fit on their workers and perhaps more. Under such a ruling, it's not far-fetched to imagine companies (genuinely or disingenuously) claiming religious exemptions in refusing to serve gay customers or denying health insurance coverage to the multi-racial child of an employee. In fact, what would stop companies from saying that their religion makes them opposed to taxes or obeying pollution regulations or you name it? Just what we need in America, more corporations with more excuses to not play by the same rules that ordinary Americans have to obey.

But in its rulings, this Court repeatedly gives more power to the interests of already-powerful corporations than the needs of the American people. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg writes, "The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents. It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure." Except the majority ruling makes clear the interests of those women simply don't matter as much as the whims of corporations.

Let's all pray to the corporate gods who control our elections that someday we have a Supreme Court that values the American people more than big business.