U.S. Supreme Court charts a worrisome course

The OlympianJuly 2, 2014 

APTOPIX Supreme Court Birth Control

Michael Hichborn kneels and prays as he joins demonstrators while waiting for the Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014. The Supreme Court says corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS — AP

The U.S. Supreme Court’s disturbing decision on Monday to exempt two companies from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate continued the conservative majority’s slide down the slippery slope of extending constitution protections historically reserved for people. The court’s dissenting minority wisely warned this road may have dangerous and unintended consequences.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said that two closely-held for-profit companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, may opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to include certain contraceptives in its health insurance plans. They argued the law violated their religious freedoms by compelling them to subsidize abortions.

To get there, the court had to find that such companies are entitled to the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. Building on its 2010 Citizens United decision, this court had no problem reaching that precedent-setting and dismaying conclusion.

And this time the court went further, allowing such companies to impose their religious beliefs on employees.

The court’s minority, which included its three women justices, predicted other business owners would now invoke religious beliefs to challenge other federal laws.

Writing for the minority, Justice Ruth Baden Ginsburg said, “The court’s expansive notion of personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths,” opening the door for companies to “opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs ... The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

Some of that dangerous ground might be right here in the state of Washington. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has said the Hobby Lobby case would have no bearing on a case involving Ralph’s Thriftway Pharmacy. In that case, the Stormans family has refused to dispense the morning after contraceptive known as Plan B based on its religious beliefs.

Ferguson said the Hobby Lobby decision doesn’t affect that case because it involves state laws and regulations. Likewise, he said Monday’s landmark ruling wouldn’t affect the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a Richland florist refused service to a gay couple.

We’re afraid that’s an optimistic view, because the decision has already had an effect on both cases.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered both sides in the Stormans case to file briefs within 28 days “on the effect, if any” of the Hobby Lobby decision. And a Benton County Superior Court pushed a hearing in the florist’s case scheduled for February back until October, presumably in anticipation of this week’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Writing for the court’s majority of five male justices, Samuel Alito defended the decision by dismissing Ginsburg’s concerns that the Hobby Lobby decision invites lawsuits from companies whose owners are opposed to vaccines, for example, or that it lays the ground work for future decisions to deny access to health care.

But Ginsburg struck at the heart of the misguided logic behind the Hobby Lobby decision when she wrote that it is not the company that chooses to claim contraceptive benefits but the individual women employees. If any woman employee shares the company’s religious views, she is “under no compulsion to use the contraceptives in question.”

No for-profit corporation should stand between a person and medicine that is legally prescribed by a doctor.

This court has charted an unsettling course. When the court allows companies to claim religious freedoms that should belong exclusively to individuals, can violations of employees’ civil rights be far behind?

Ginsburg’s warnings are valid.

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