Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Alito insisted that the Supreme Court ruled narrowly as it sided with two family owned corporations. Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga, a maker of wood cabinets, argue that the Affordable Care Act violates their religious liberty. They cite the requirement that they pay for insurance coverage that includes contraception. The court majority stressed that the exemption it carved applied just to “closely held” for-profit corporations that operate on religious principles.
The court has traveled this path in the past. In Bush v. Gore, the majority emphasized the unique circumstances of an unresolved presidential election. It held that no precedent had been set. Yet, 14 years later, its arguments still resonate as states grapple with the notion of equal protection at the ballot box.
The real concern, as expressed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a sharp, comprehensive and persuasive dissent, is that the ruling inevitably will extend to corporations of various shapes and sizes. They will have much leeway to make claims involving religious liberty, objecting, say, to insurance coverage of vaccines or blood transfusions.
Ginsburg aptly described the ruling as “a decision of startling breadth.” Never before has the court extended such protection for religious freedom to “the commercial, profit-making world.” Hobby Lobby and Conestoga do not have to operate as corporations. They choose to do so, presumably because of the favorable conditions, including limited liability. With that choice comes certain obligations, which, in many ways, reflect a diverse and secular marketplace, with polls showing that roughly 90 percent of Americans find contraception morally acceptable.
Court precedent holds that accommodations to religious beliefs must not impinge on the interests of others. Tellingly, the majority skips past this thinking to base its ruling in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Yet that law features its own standard, in this case, that the contraception requirement prove a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion.
Hard to see such a burden. The companies are not required to offer insurance coverage. The penalty for not doing so would likely be less costly. The corporation could have employees buy coverage on their own through the insurance exchanges.
What should not be overlooked is the burden placed on employees to make way for the religious preference of their employer. The required package of benefits under the Affordable Care Act reflects the consensus of medical experts. Many workers may not share the same religious beliefs of the corporate leadership, yet they would be put at a disadvantage.
Companies often note, and accurately so, that employee compensation should be viewed in full, benefits as part of pay. True also is that companies hardly dictate how workers spend what they earn. That is up to the employee, and health insurance is no different. It is compensation. A corporation that draws on a diverse market for skilled workers should not be allowed to have it both ways, citing a burden on its religious liberty, failing, along with the Supreme Court, to see the greater burden for others.