Pro-con: Was Hobby Lobby ruling correct?

supremecourtbldgSince March 2010, as the Obama administration turned the Affordable Care Act into federal regulations, few provisions grew as controversial as the mandate that most employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives. The most disputed implication of that mandate, and the one at issue in a major Supreme Court ruling Monday, demanded coverage of contraceptives some employers view as tantamount to abortion because those methods can stop fertilized embryos from implanting in the womb. For many Americans, this so-called Hobby Lobby case (the plaintiffs include that retail chain) is about whether employees have a right under the health care overhaul to employer-provided contraception. Other Americans see the case as a test of whether the government can require companies to be indirectly complicit in abortions. For still others it’s about attacking or defending the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Five U.S. Supreme Court justices chose a different battleground. In the first sentence of a 49-page opinion, they framed the case as asking whether the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act lets the government demand that closely held corporations “provide health-insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners.” In the very next sentence, the justices ruled that the RFRA’s protections of religious exercise outlaw the Obamacare regs that require such employers to provide the coverage. The ruling is narrowly tailored and, with its numerous qualifiers, doesn’t appear to create the slippery slope threats that the court’s dissenters imagine. Congress and the Obama administration can find ways to provide contraception without involving employers. For lack of that smarter move from the get-go, Obamacare has suffered another wound. We hope a pile of future memoirs explain why the White House didn’t find a less intrusive way of delivering the coverage. This decision angers many Americans. But it’s a logical extension of the Constitution’s intent to make ours a free and pluralistic society. – Chicago Tribune

In ruling 5 to 4 that “closely held” companies can refuse on religious grounds to include contraceptives in their employees’ health plans, the Supreme Court has needlessly interfered with an important provision of the Affordable Care Act. And it has done more than that. The specious reasoning in Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion could embolden employers to assert a “religious” right to deny other health benefits to their employees or to discriminate in other ways. And by stretching the meaning of a law intended to protect individuals, the decision threatens to fracture what has been a bipartisan support for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs. A 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allows a person to opt out of a generally applicable law under some circumstances if obeying it would “substantially burden” the exercise of his or her religion. Alito held, unpersuasively, that Hobby Lobby and the other companies qualified as “persons” and, even more absurdly, that making contraception available to employees who would make their own reproductive decisions was a “substantial burden” on the religious freedom of employers. Bad as it is, the decision could have been worse. The protection it offers is limited to “closely held” companies, sparing the courts from having to determine the religious beliefs of large companies with multiple shareholders and officers. Alito also insisted that the decision didn’t establish a general principle that a company could get around an insurance mandate by lodging a religious objection. But the logic of the decision would seem to cover a wide range of medical services that might offend Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and adherents of other faiths. Beyond the harm it does to women’s access to birth control, this ruling undoes the political consensus that led to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Battle lines will soon be forming around whether the law should be amended or even repealed. That’s a lot of damage from one misguided decision. – Los Angeles Times