Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made a terrible mistake in a campaign finance case by treating corporations as people and unleashing a torrent of unlimited, often untraceable political contributions. The court should not make the same mistake after it hears arguments today that corporations should also have the religious freedom to avoid providing health insurance coverage for contraception. Private, for-profit corporations should not be able to force the religious views of their owners on their employees.
The Affordable Care Act requires businesses that offer health insurance to cover various forms of birth control without a co-payment. Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores that includes nearly 30 stores in Florida, argues the company should be exempt from the requirement because it violates the religious beliefs of the company's owners. Conestoga Wood Specialities, a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker, makes a similar argument. Neither of these private companies are religious groups, which already are exempt from the contraception coverage requirement, or even religious-affiliated groups, which have been accommodated through an Obama administration regulation. The Supreme Court should agree with a Philadelphia appeals court that found Conestoga Wood could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to avoid providing coverage for contraception because "for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise.''
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not intended to be used in this manner when it was overwhelmingly approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In fact, Florida is among nearly 20 states that have similar religious freedom requirements in state law. But the idea behind the federal law was to protect individuals who held unconventional religious beliefs, not to enable corporations owned by followers of mainstream religions to avoid broadly applied health care reform law.
Even if the Supreme Court decides corporations such as Hobby Lobby can cite the federal religious freedom protections, it should not allow such companies to avoid providing coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act. The religious freedom act says government may not place a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedom unless there is a compelling government interest. There is no substantial burden to Hobby Lobby. Its owners are free to practice their religion as they please, and the company can pay a fine if it chooses not to offer any health coverage. There also is a significant compelling government interest in providing access to birth control, enabling women to make the best decisions for themselves about contraception and reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions.
If the justices rule in favor of these corporations, they will open the door as widely as they did in the campaign finance case for more negative consequences. It is conceivable that businesses could cite the same religious protections to avoid providing coverage for vaccinations or blood transfusions. It is not a leap to suggest some business somewhere would use the same argument to discriminate against gay Americans or same-sex couples.
The U.S. Supreme Court should not grant new religious freedom rights to corporations and let them avoid providing the contraception coverage that the federal health care law requires.