By Kristen Lau and Nina Roumell

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the cases brought by craft store Hobby Lobby and kitchen cabinet manufacturer Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation against the Department of Health and Human Services.  The two companies are arguing that they should not be mandated to provide certain contraceptives to their employees because doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs.  

The Affordable Care Act, which was passed into law by Congress in 2010, includes a Women’s Health Amendment that ensures coverage of women’s preventive health services.  The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) officially recommended that eight preventive services for women be covered by all insurance carriers with no cost-sharing requirement, meaning they are free of additional cost to consumers.  

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties specifically take issue with providing emergency contraception, such as Plan B, and intrauterine devices (IUDs).  The two companies, both for-profit businesses, argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempts them from the ACA mandate.  Previously, that exemption has only been given to nonprofits with a religious nature, not corporations.  RFRA states that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”  The question here is are these corporations “people” who need their religious freedoms protected?  Is it Hobby Lobby, the for-profit corporation, or its individual owners who are required to provide birth control to their employees?  Does the governmental obligation lie with protecting the corporation or the health of its 28,000 employees?  The Supreme Court will answer these questions after they hear the oral arguments made by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga’s attorneys. 

There have been precedents upholding the idea that corporations cannot use their religious beliefs as grounds for discrimination.  ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling cites an example saying companies cannot refuse to provide services to African Americans because of religious views against racial integration.  In the past, courts ruled against an employer who refused to provide health coverage to single mothers on the grounds of a religious belief that women cannot be heads of households.

However, even if the courts rule that companies can hold religious beliefs, those beliefs can be overridden by a “compelling government interest.”  In this case, the interest is in women’s health and equality.  Accessibility to contraceptives is extremely important in protecting the health and finances of women.  In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancies, over half of women have cited other medical benefits as contributing reasons to their decision to use oral contraceptives.  Allowing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga exemptions from the ACA would prevent women in Colorado and across the country from getting the health care they need when they need it and would reinstate the gender gap in health care that places higher financial burdens on women to keep themselves healthy.  In addition, it would open the door to many other types of employer discrimination based on religious beliefs.  If Hobby Lobby can choose to withhold coverage for IUDs, can another employer choose to withhold vaccines or any other health care service they claim is against their beliefs?  Can any other medical service be deemed an infringement of religious freedom?  Allowing corporations to have the decision making power to refuse access to basic health care sets a dangerous precedent.  Women’s choices about their reproductive health should not lie in the hands of their bosses. 

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