Yesterday’s SCOTUS decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. is, to say the least, a controversial one. Since the decision was announced, I’ve seen a social-media outcry that’s nearly unmatched by anything else I’ve ever seen, at least having to do with politics. It makes sense why. A lot of people, self-described feminists and otherwise, care about women having affordable access to birth control. A lot of people place a great deal of value on religion personally and publicly. A lot of people have strong opinions about issues such as health care coverage, corporate personhood, and gender discrimination. Seeing as the majority of my politically vocal Facebook friends are grouped neatly to the left of the spectrum, and given that I generally fit comfortably among them, I write this because I’ve read a lot of misconceptions, exaggerations, and unfounded extrapolations about this decision.
I’m going to come right out and say it: from a legal perspective, I believe the Supreme Court arrived at the right decision. Perhaps not morally, or ethically, or even in terms of the nation’s pragmatic long-term well-being, but legally. I’ll try to explain why I think this as clearly and succinctly as possible. First of all, and irrefutably so, there is great precedent for corporate personhood. With Citizens United, corporate personhood extends to freedom of political speech, a concept not unlike the freedom of religious speech.You might disagree with the very idea of corporate personhood and so might I, but the fact of the matter is that corporations are treated as people in this country and therefore laws apply to them, too. The law in question, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), states that the government can’t burden a person’s (read: corporation’s) right to religious expression unless there’s a compelling governmental interest. As I’ll explain later, it doesn’t actually matter for the Supreme Court whether access to affordable contraception constitutes a compelling government interest or not. There is also great precedent for corporations receiving religious exemptions from contraceptive mandates. The only difference is that these corporations have all been non-profit. Corporate personhood applies to non- and for-profit corporations alike; there is no legal reason for the Court to separate the two for the purposes of the RFRA. Overall, the Court’s decision is a logical widening of laws and institutions already in place. There is nothing radical about allowing a corporation to exercise individual rights, nor is there anything radical about exempting a corporation from a contraceptive mandate.
I want to stress again that my opinion on this matter is based on the laws and systems in place rather than my own personal convictions or beliefs. Now, to address some fallacies and misconceptions:
First, I’ve seen many people doubt the sincerity of the Green family’s religious beliefs. I wouldn’t think that most rational people would make this argument, but I have heard it. The Court, of course, operated under the assumption that these beliefs were held dearly, not that it particularly matters, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest otherwise. Regardless, it is not the Court’s place, nor is it mine or yours, to evaluate the authenticity of another person’s religious beliefs. More pervasive is the notion that covering contraceptives is not truly a burden on the owners’ religious freedom. A corporation, being an artificial entity, is a product of its owners, and therefore when the corporation is forced to behave in ways that offend its owners’ beliefs, its owners’ right to freedom of exercise under the RFRA is burdened. Some have countered that the importance of access to contraception is greater than the importance of the owners’ freedom of religion. I tend to agree. This goes back to the language of RFRA, which prohibits burdening of the free exercise of religion except for in cases of compelling governmental interest. However, because there are ways for the government to reach the same ends in terms of contraception coverage without imposing a religious burden on Hobby Lobby, it is legally obligated to do so.
There also seems to be misunderstanding in regards to contraceptives themselves in question. Many captioned pictures circulating around Facebook and Twitter depict a standard daily birth control pills and claim that they are not being covered; a great deal of the outrage centers on the fact that these pills are commonly used for purposes other than contraception, such as menstrual regulation. However, Hobby Lobby, along with Conestoga Wood Specialties (another corporation which has notably challenged the mandate), only objects to forms of contraception that are used after sexual intercourse, such as the so-called “morning after pill,” since it believes that life begins at conception. Access to the birth control pill as shown in the viral photographs will be unaffected, although it is true that in theory there’s nothing stopping a similar corporation from requesting exemption from coverage of this too. I’ve also seen the claim made that post-coital contraceptives do not technically constitute abortion for biological reasons; the majority of doctors and scientists seem to agree about this. I personally think they’re right. Here’s the problem, though: it doesn’t matter. What matters legally in this case is whether the owners of Hobby Lobby feel as though their religious beliefs are being compromised, and they do.
Moreover, the Supreme Court is not effectively limiting anyone’s access to affordable contraception. I’ve alluded to this already, when I claimed that the government can ensure that employees of Hobby Lobby receive contraceptives without burdening the religious exercise of the owners. The answer is simple: the government will simply require that the third-party insurers used by the corporations directly provide the coverage instead. This is already how it works with the religious nonprofits that receive exemptions from the contraceptive mandate, and according to Health and Human Services, it imposes no financial burden on the insurance companies. In his ruling, Justice Alito next-to-demanded the federal government to take this route, and the White House has already pledged to ensure that no woman is denied affordable contraception due to this ruling. Overall, it seems that the ruling will only practically affect the higher-ups of privately-held, for-profit corporations and not their contraceptive-seeking employees. In a worst-case scenario, it might serve as a minor bump in the road to affordable contraception coverage; on the other hand, it may actually allow these employees to receive contraception more efficiently. And all of this is while respecting the religious liberty of business owners. Everyone wins!
The only real point of contention that I see is whether this ruling is narrow, as Alito claims, or broad, as Ginsburg claims in her dissent. The ruling majority have been adamant that the exemption only applies to the contraceptive mandate and cannot be extended to other morally contested mandates, such as for blood transfusions and vaccines. They have also held that corporations are still not allowed to discriminate sexually or otherwise in the name of religion. If this is true, the ruling poses little threat to the general wellbeing. However, as Ginsburg points out, this is the first ruling to expressly give corporations religious integrity, and therefore it could potentially be used as a precedent in the future for more radical religiously-based corporate exemptions, though I doubt the validity of this. This would be bad, but we can’t know that it will be the case.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should stop making such a fuss about this decision. It’s one of those nasty cases in which the language of the law conflicts with many people’s values, especially on the left. However, it’s not the Court’s job to make moral judgments; it’s their job to make legal judgments. Regardless, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. should hardly pose an obstacle to women’s health, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.