Initially, the close vote in Monday’s Supreme Court ruling struck me as a surprise. I had anticipated the Justices to side heavily with Hobby Lobby, a corporation fighting against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act on the grounds of religious freedom. Instead, the case of Burwell v Hobby Lobby came to a close 5-4 vote, favoring the corporation by just one ballot. The ruling will allow businesses with over 50 employees to opt out of the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, which required health care plans to include access to various types of birth control. Religious freedom is a concept intrinsic to American life, and as a key component of The Constitution, it seemed obvious that Hobby Lobby would win the case.
For months, this debate has seemed futile to me. Though some religions promote opinions I don’t agree with, I feel strongly that opposing cultural views doesn’t justify the infringement of religious freedom. However, as the final court ruling has now been made, I’ve realized that by accepting the religious rights of Christian business owners, I have inherently denied the rights of thousands of low wage employees. Additionally, even after decades of “equal rights” in America, Monday’s ruling has highlighted the Anglo-Saxon, Christian, male-centric society our government caters to, while denying the same rights to their more equanimous peers.
Economic Rights Vs. Religious Rights
Twitter hashtags and news site headlines speak to the obvious issue at hand: Religious Freedom and Women’s Freedom hold conflicting viewpoints. Convincing arguments have been made for both sides, as it appears that someone’s rights are at risk no matter the final decision.
But, by moving from a religious vs. feminist debate to a conversation that realizes the economic implications of this decision illuminates the most impactful issues.
The mouthpieces for the religious debate have used a surprisingly unconvincing argument to support their opinion: Hobby Lobby isn’t denying anyone of their rights, as contraception is still available to every one of their employees, just not provided out of the business owner’s pocket. In a 2012 interview with the National Review, President and CEO of Autocam Corporation, John Kennedy, explained his position on the issue:
“I am not trying to prevent access to anything that’s legal in the U.S. today. I don’t tell my employees how to live their lives or how to make decisions about family planning or abortion. In fact, our employees can purchase anything…—including a surgical abortion — with pre-tax dollars through their HSAs (health savings accounts). I’m simply trying to ensure that my family does not spend our money in a way that directly supports conduct that violates our deeply held beliefs.”
In the same interview, Kennedy reported that the average salary at Autocam Medical is $53,000 a year, or about $4,400 a month. In Grand Rapids, MI, where most of the company is centered, average rent is $900 a month, when combined with other basic needs like food, electricity, renter’s insurance, cell service and internet, the average person would spend about 40% of their $4,400 monthly income to meet the basic American standard of living. Let alone transportation, debt repayment, clothing, any unexpected costs and the necessity to save money. On Kennedy’s proud average employee salary, the annual $850 charge for oral contraceptives is likely unattainable. A single morning after pill costs $50. If a woman needs surgical sterilization, it would cost $6,000 out of pocket, and a first trimester abortion could cost upwards of $2,000, and substantially more for a second trimester procedure.
For this reason, Kennedy’s proposed solution to prevent infringement on his religious freedom could easily put his average female employee into a substandard living condition.
The Affordable Care Act was implemented in order to relieve American citizens of the nation’s exorbitant health care costs. Burwell v Hobby Lobby may have been a case of piety for the corporation, but it’s a case of economic equity for their employees, placing religious freedom ahead of wage equality. This is not an issue of who gets to practice their religion, rather one of who gets to decide what people spend their money on.
If Burwell v Hobby Lobby had passed in Burwell’s favour, it is unarguable that the religious beliefs of some business owners would have been compromised. But, even more important to the general population of American citizens, it would have prevented rich businessmen from forcing their female employees to spend money that their bosses don’t pay them. Business owners need to pay their employees more or pay for their birth control. The ruling that occurred is not a fair third option.
Christian Rights Vs. Religious Rights
What would have happened if Christians were not heading the debate of religious freedom? What if a woman was leading the fight? What if men were also being denied their right to health care? Maybe, instead of Hobby Lobby, Kraft Foods came forward and said that it would no longer cover anesthesia in their employee’s insurance package because it contains pork by-products, which is not compatible with the religious practices of the company’s Jewish (and really kickass) CEO Irene Rosenfeld.
Of course, this is all speculation, but I think most of us would have scoffed at the idea, and I assume it never would have received enough traction to reach the Supreme Court.
So, why does Irene Rosenfeld have to compromise her beliefs and foot the bill for her employee’s anesthesia while David Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, can deny his female employees access to medical care that meets 21st century standards?
Do some religions deserve more freedoms than others? Do those that are loud and uncompromising deserve more rights than their more accommodating peers? According to the constitution, the answer is no. However, the Supreme Court ruled to allow discrimination on Monday; discrimination against women, the working class and the diverse group of business owners and CEO’s whose religious rights are still being compromised despite the Court’s decision.
Unfortunately, this isn’t about a single rich Christian. Instead, it is about patient and systematic small steps towards denying women their reproductive rights, leading to the obvious long term goal of overturning Roe v Wade (which Justice John Roberts has more than hinted at). The Supreme Court has set a precedent that a woman’s ability to properly take care of her body is less important than how a Christian spends his money. Supporters of this ruling will continue to nibble around the edges until they get what they want.
With the aging Supreme Court (4 justices are over the age of 70, 2 of which voted in Hobby Lobby’s favor), it is expected that a new judge will be appointed in 2015. As of now, we can only hope that this new Justice will consider all aspects of this issue before casting his or her vote when the topic undoubtedly resurrects in the future.
- Madison Ordway