Hobby Lobby Ruling Leaves Religious Groups Divided

It's an infamous line that haunted Mitt Romney's political campaign and sparked public outrage in 2011, ranging from the Occupy movement's 99 percent to the likes of comedians and reporters who took jabs at the politician for a few easy laughs.

"Corporations are people, my friend."

But just four years after the high court's controversial "Citizens United" ruling that for-profit corporations have free speech rights, Romney's comment is hardly a joke -- the decision has made way for another victory for corporations: for the first time, they now have religious rights.

The Supreme Court's ideologically split 5-4 decision on Monday that "closely held" religious companies are not required to provide contraceptive care under federal healthcare laws has left California's faith communities sharply divided, setting off a debate in which some groups decry the ruling, while others celebrate it as one of the most significant victories for religious freedom in decades.

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Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, lauded the ruling as "a great day for religious freedom for family businesses." The Roman Catholic Church was not part of the case, but the high court's decision affects privately owned Catholic businesses. The episcopal conference of the Catholic Church in the U.S., the Conference of Catholic Bishops commented on behalf of all dioceses, including the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The California Family Council, a state branch of the Christian non-profits Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, also deemed the court's decision a step in the right direction for religious freedom, but would have liked to see a ruling with a broader scope.

"Even if you accept the premise that abortifacient birth control is a right, even if you accept it as constitutionally protected, it doesn't mean your employer should be forced to provide it," said Jonathan Keller, the organization's executive director. "The second amendment says we have the right to bear arms, but that doesn't mean we can demand employers provide us a shotgun."

The court's opinion does not grant carte blanche religious rights, Keller added, noting that the ruling does not create exemptions from all insurance coverage mandates, such as vaccinations or blood transfusions. That this case targets women's contraceptive care does not mean it was motivated by gender bias, he argued.

"Look at the families that brought these cases to the Supreme Court. Mrs. Green [of Hobby Lobby] is a woman. She fully supported this case being litigated," Keller said. "Elizabeth Hahn of Conestoga also fought for this. They believe their freedom of religion should not be burdened."

The Affordable Care Act's contraception care rules hold that most for-profit businesses must offer such coverage to their employees in company health plans. Religious non-profits and houses of worship are both exempt from this requirement, and accommodations exist to ensure those organizations are not required to pay or provide contraceptive care to employees.

"This is part of a larger thrust by religious political conservatives to claim there is a war against religion in America, and that's a very far-fetched claim," said Jim Burklo, an ordained Protestant minister and the associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. "This is an effort to enable religious people to discriminate against others. To call it a quest for defending religious freedom is a misnomer and inaccurate description of what is happening in this country."

In "Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc." and "Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell," the owners of arts-and-crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby and cabinet company Conestoga Wood Specialties opposed the use of intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives, which they argued are the same as abortifacients that induce abortions.

The four contraceptives the companies oppose -- the intrauterine devices, Plan B, and Ella -- are not abortifacients, according to the Food and Drug Administration. These contraceptives prevent fertilization of an egg; they do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which is the medical definition of an abortion. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in the dissenting opinion, the cost of an IUD is nearly a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.

Mary Larson, representative of the Los Angeles branch of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said she is gravely concerned about the court's decision that a for-profit corporation is able to exercise religious freedom. The interfaith organization, which represents 40 denominations and faith group, filed an amicus brief support contraceptive care, arguing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 must protect the religious rights of individual workers.

"I don't think Hobby Lobby should be classified as a religious institution," Larson said. "It seems like a long stretch to imagine that because an employer has religious views that they should restrict the religious or reproductive freedoms of their employees. We're still in a state of shock."

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito defended the plaintiffs' "sincere Christian beliefs" and said the Obama administration had failed to demonstrate that ACA contraceptive coverage rules are the "least restrictive means of advancing [its] interest" in offering women cost-free birth control access.

The Greens, who own the Hobby Lobby stores, "have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception," Alito wrote. "They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that...may result in the destruction of an embryo."

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer, noted that this "decision of startling breadth" could be "potentially sweeping," adding that it would "deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure."

"The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield," Ginsburg later writes.

In January, Attorney General Harris filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals' decision that held for-profit businesses may exercise religion, and therefore are covered by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"A woman's access to quality, affordable preventive healthcare coverage should not depend on her employer's beliefs," Harris said in a statement. "Every woman should be able to make healthcare decisions for herself and her family. I am deeply disappointed that the court ruled to limit this important right."

Varun Soni, an expert in religion and the law at USC, also noted the potential for a "slippery slope."

"Not only are you saying a [for-profit] corporation can avail itself of religious exemption, but corporations could have all sorts of religious freedoms -- not hiring LGBT people, or people who aren't Christian," Soni said. "It opens the door for other cases for corporations getting more religious freedoms."

Soni added that if the court says corporations can enjoy the free exercise of religion, then it should also define what a religious corporation is, and, by extension what religion is -- a practice it has traditionally avoided. While definitions and guidelines exist for non-profit religious entities, the lines are still murky in the for-profit sector, he said.

While analysis of the ruling calls the decision a limited ruling, it is hardly limited in scope -- some 90 percent of all American corporations are "closely held" and women make up 52 percent of the U.S. workforce.

"As a Christian, you absolutely have a responsibility to put your beliefs into political action. I do that and [Hobby Lobby's owners] should, too," Burklo, the associate dean, said. "Pressure the government to ban abortion or contraception if your faith compels you, but that is your moral responsibility, not whether or not you obey the law to offer coverage that is required."

Read the Supreme Court opinion here:

About the Author

Sarah Parvini is a Web Producer for KCET'S "SoCal Connected" and an award-winning multimedia journalist who has reported from different pockets around the globe.
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