July 2, 2014

EDITORIAL: Obama must assist women hurt by Hobby Lobby ruling

It wasn't surprising that a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court voted to support private companies that refuse to provide certain forms of contraceptives.

It wasn't surprising that a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court voted to support private companies that refuse to provide certain forms of contraceptives.

If corporate "persons" have the right to free speech, as the high court ruled in the Citizens United case, then surely they have the right to hold religious views.

Still, it was disappointing that the court provided cover for privately held corporations and their wealthy owners to skirt the law — and, in so doing, gave greater weight to their rights than those of actual humans.

In this case, the law is the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers who offer health care plans to their workers to include contraceptives under the coverage. The actual humans are the millions of working U.S. women and their families.

The ruling, released Monday and written by Justice Samuel Alito, interpreted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was signed by President Bill Clinton, and concluded that private companies — as opposed to companies whose stock is publicly traded — can deny certain contraceptive coverage to their employees.

The case involved two privately held companies: Hobby Lobby, which employs 14,000 people in 41 states, and Conestoga Wood, which employs 2,100 people in four states. However, it has implications for any woman of childbearing age who works for a privately held for-profit company and is enrolled in an employer health plan.

Both companies objected to two types of contraceptives required by federal rules to be covered under the law — intrauterine devices, or IUDs, and the "morning after" pill — because of their effects on fertilized eggs. The companies argued that being forced to cover them for employees was a violation of their religious rights.

A majority of the court agreed. The 5-4 ruling split on gender, with the male justices in the majority, with the exception of Justice Stephen Breyer. The majority, which stopped short of deciding the case on constitutional grounds, concluded the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to companies in as much as they are a collection of owners, shareholders and officers whose religious liberties ought to be protected.

How curbing the health care options for women in mostly low-paid jobs protects the religious freedom of a group of company owners is as unclear to us as it was to the four dissenting justices.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissenting opinion, called it a "decision of startling breadth" that allows corporations and other business entities to "opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."

It makes a certain sense for churches and religion-based nonprofits to be exempt from the contraception law, but it sets a troubling precedent to allow money-making companies to claim strong religious beliefs and deny lawful benefits to their workers.

The challenge now is for President Barack Obama to come up with an alternative for hardworking women who should not have to choose among family planning, their personal privacy and paychecks because of the views of their bosses.


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