Do women get to decide what kind of birth control they can access, an essential part of whether and when they become mothers? Or is that the purview of employers?
That is the issue at stake for millions of women who work at for-profit corporations in a case heard Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the Affordable Care Act does not require employers to offer a health care plan to their employees, if they do, the plan must include certain "preventive health services," including family planning contraceptives.
Under the First Amendment, churches and religious organizations that object to having health plans that include birth control coverage are exempt. That is as it should be.
But now two for-profit corporations want a religious exemption. The owners of Hobby Lobby, which employs 14,000 people in 41 states, and the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., which employs 2,100 people in four states, object to contraceptive coverage.
The question for the court is whether the religious beliefs of business owners of for-profit corporations should trump the rights of their employees. The answer should be a resounding "No."
California's elected officials played a role in the arguments with amicus briefs that, with few exceptions, strongly opposed the idea of exempting for-profit corporations from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage requirement.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, joining 15 other state attorneys general, stated what should be an obvious point: Corporation law is supposed to separate the identity of the business from that of the shareholders and managers.
Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, in a brief with 17 other U.S. senators, made it clear that the "plain language and legislative intent" of Congress was not "to elevate the religious beliefs of corporate shareholders over the rights of employees to access preventive health care provided under the Affordable Care Act."
They insist that the First Amendment's protection of the freedom to exercise religion applies to individuals and nonprofit religious organizations -- not to for-profit corporations. Corporate shareholders, they said, should not be able to use the law "as a sword to force their religious beliefs on others."
Sixteen Democratic members of the California House delegation joined a similar brief.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, signed a brief supporting Hobby Lobby.
But if the court allows for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby to be exempt, that would open a Pandora's box of exemptions.
The owner of a restaurant chain who objects to serving African Americans on religious grounds could defy the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A business owner could use religion to hire only men or to rent only to married couples. For-profit corporations whose owners have a personal religious belief against blood transfusions, vaccinations or stem-cell treatments could deny that coverage to their employees.
These for-profit corporations hire people of all faiths. Their owners do not have a constitutional right to impose their personal religious beliefs about contraception on their employees.