On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled that family-owned, for-profit corporations may hold religious convictions and that those corporations may opt out of federal regulations requiring employer-sponsored health insurance to cover contraceptives.
The previous week, the court ruled against a Massachusetts law that mandated 35-foot buffer zones around entrances to health centers providing abortion care services.
It is disturbing that the court continues to single out women’s reproductive health care as deserving of a higher level of scrutiny than other issues.
In McCullen v. Coakley, the court ruled that clinic buffer zones violate the free speech rights of protesters, but it ignored similar buffer zones for polling places, funerals and the Supreme Court itself.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court allowed companies to opt out of contraceptive coverage, but it cautioned that “[t]his decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.”
It’s hard to believe that, in 2014, we’re still dealing with stigma around women’s reproductive rights and women’s sexuality in general.
Another disturbing element shared by these two decisions is the court’s willingness to legitimize false assertions and build legal decisions upon such assertions.
The court stated that clinic buffer zones prevent protesters from having “personal, caring, consensual conversations with women.” Anyone who has been on Congress Street in Portland when protesters are active can tell you there is nothing caring or consensual about the vitriolic, threatening verbal assaults directed at every woman who walks by, whether or not she is visiting the health center there.
Similarly, the Hobby Lobby decision is based on the business owners’ firmly held religious convictions that certain types of contraception, including intrauterine devices and emergency contraception, are equivalent to abortion. As medical and scientific experts made clear to the court, this is not the way these methods work; the business owners are wrong.
Yet that doesn’t seem to matter to the court. All that matters is that the petitioners hold a sincere religious belief, factual or not. The court has deemed that a sincerely-held false religious belief is deemed more deserving of protection than the rights of individual employees.
Perhaps most worrisome, the court has set a precedent allowing some corporations to hold religious beliefs that exempt them from following federal law. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg says in her dissent to the majority opinion, this is a decision of startling breadth.
If a corporation can opt out of providing contraceptive coverage based on religious beliefs, can those same beliefs allow that corporation to refuse to employ women at all? Or refuse to employ or serve people who are gay, or who hold different religious beliefs? Or refuse to comply with any number of federal protections that conflict with the corporation’s religious beliefs?
Just a few months ago, Maine Family Planning, which provides abortion services in Augusta, joined a broad coalition to defeat state legislation that would have given individuals and private entities the right to refuse to comply with state law, based on religious beliefs. The Maine Legislature wisely recognized the dangers inherent in such a broad exemption from the protections that exist in our laws. With its most recent decision, the Supreme Court said that a corporation’s religious beliefs can be more important than the law of the land.
While the court attempted to limit the scope of this ruling to birth control alone, it took less than 48 hours for other religious groups to demand an exemption from federal regulations requiring equal treatment for LGBT employees. Which religiously based claim will come next is anyone’s guess.
It’s a difficult time for all of us who know that reproductive health care is an important part of basic health care and that everyone should be able to access health care without judgment, intimidation or harassment. But the frustration we feel motivates us to work on new strategies for ensuring access to the care. We hope like-minded Mainers will join us in the fight for reproductive justice.
George A. Hill is president and CEO of Maine Family Planning. Dr. Connie Adler is president of the board of directors of Maine Family Planning.