Summary: The Court has ruled that a “closely-held” (family owned, close to 90% of all companies) may refuse to abide by the parts of the Affordable Care Act mandating some methods of contraceptive coverage if those methods contradict the company owner's religious beliefs. The vote was 5-4. Alito wrote the ruling. Ginsberg wrote the dissent.
The ruling is discussed on gay blogs and I'm using two posts for my sources. They are lawyer Ari Ezra Waldman's post on Towleroad and anti-gay debunker Jim Burroway's post on Box Turtle Bulletin. Here are some of the points they make. There are lots of other general news sources with coverage.
This is not a constitutional issue. The ruling is based on 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that allowed a person to object to and not follow a law that violated religious beliefs. That was later restricted (by the Supremes) to federal laws. This ruling applies the RFRA to family-owned corporations (Burroway asks: “Did Hobby Lobby’s corporate charter have to undergo baptism by immersion, or would sprinkling do?”). Alito wrote that means a business owner isn't faced with the choice of violating religious beliefs or going out of business.
But Ginsberg responded by writing:
Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations... The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.Translation: the religious beliefs of the owners trumps that of the workers. And the Court favors the religion of the owners over that of the workers, which is supposed to be banned by the Constitution. Wrote Waldman:
Never before has someone's particular interpretation of religious scripture been enshrined as law so as to affect so many innocent people.The Court declared the ruling only covers the contraceptive mandate. There is discussion spelling out what kinds of things they are specifically excluding from the ruling – the ruling doesn't include objections to immunizations or hiring on the basis of race, Those things are covered by other statues and have good reasons for their existence.
Both Waldman and Burroway know better. If I remember right, last summer's ruling striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act declared it could not be used to justify same-sex marriage and over the last year 20 cases have done exactly that.
Ginsberg is wise to that too and lists a variety of cases in the past where religion was used as justification – refusing to serve black customers, refusing to hire someone who lived with a partner without marriage, or refusing to hire a single woman without her father's consent.
That brings us to the reason why all the gay blogs are so interested in this case. What about the photographer or wedding cake baker (to name two recent cases) who refuse to serve gay couples? Is this ruling restricted to federal laws or will courts apply it to state and local laws (there are no federal gay rights laws)? If so a big bite has just been taken out of our rights. This ruling is an interpretation of a law. Are our rights safe because so far they have been found in the constitution?
This ruling makes the claim that some issues qualify for religious exemption and some issues don't. Who gets to decide? Should I be relieved that the decider isn't a Catholic Archbishop nor the president of the Southern Baptist Convention? Instead the Supremes claim that role. Where did they get the training to make such determinations? Since none of them are United Methodist (or even Protestant) how can I be sure they will decide according to my religion?
The courts will now fill with cases (just as we filled courts on same-sex marriage cases) testing the limits of this ruling. But that requires someone having the resources to file a case (a problem when the issue is voting rights). Waldman concludes:
The real effects may go unseen: they will be in the health care plans dropped, in the increased health care expenses seen by women, in the lack of access to birth control, and, most ominously, in the continued restriction of choices women have when it comes to protecting their bodies and health. The effects may also be seen in an erosion of LGBT equality.A discussion on religious freedom from back in March – when the issue was the Catholic hierarchy demanding exemption from contraception in the ACA – is appropriate now (yeah, it sat in my browser tabs all this time). Robert Shrum of The Daily Beast says this push for religious freedom brings up a big question. Can we learn to live together? President Kennedy said it this way:
Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart…Yes, Shrum is aware that back in the early 1960s racism meant our society wasn't all that harmonious. A better word for today would be “pluralistic.”