The SCOTUS’ recent 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. has stirred up public outcry, but most reviewers feel that political ideologues have created this controversy to serve their own agendas. In the majority opinion, Justice Alito held that certain requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) concerning contraceptives should not apply to “closely held” corporate entities whose owners’ religious affiliations prevent them from approving the purchase, existence, or use of same. So why do some pundits and lay people believe that the decision has hampered their rights to acquire these contraceptives on their own, outside of their employment? Why do some people view this decision as a slight against women by a paternalistic band of conservative justices?
The decision refers to “closely held” corporations, or corporate entities where more than half of the shares are owned by fewer than five individuals. This includes most start ups and small firms in the U.S., as well as Hobby Lobby. According to Justice Alito, requiring the owners of small corporations to obey the contraceptive mandate of the PPACA violates those owners’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000bb). Under this section, even laws that don’t specifically deal with religious matters may still possibly result in a violation of the right to the freedom of religious practice sanctified by the Bill of Rights, specifically Amendment I. For such laws, the state must provide a compelling reason for their necessity, and the resulting incursion on religious freedom, something which was not done by the PPACA. However, by restricting their ruling to small businesses, the SCOTUS has indirectly stated that larger employers, the so-called “corporations” that some feel run the country, are not exempt from the law as stated. So the impoverished employees of Wal Mart, for example, will still have access to employer provided healthcare that includes coverage of contraceptives.
For this reason, I find it hard to view this decision as a major infringement on women’s reproductive rights. If the Court had ruled that women should not be given access to contraceptives entirely, then I would object to the ruling as an unjustified overextension of state power. By calling this a slight against women and a step backwards in progressive politics, dissenters are in fact claiming that their perceived right to government subsidized healthcare trumps the right to the free practice of religion of their employers. Unfortunately for them, one is seen as derived from the hubris of the state and the other a natural and, dare I say, inalienable right protected by the Constitution.