Last Monday, June 30, marked the end of the latest term for the United States Supreme Court and the announcement of some of the year’s most anticipated rulings. Among the rulings announced was the decision in the case of Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores.
The primary question in this case was whether a provision in the Affordable Care Act that required employers to provide workers with comprehensive insurance coverage, which includes a variety of methods of contraception, infracted upon the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners and by extension the corporation itself.
While there are exceptions in place for small employers, defined as a business with under 50 employees, as well as exceptions for religious employers such as churches, the owners of the Hobby Lobby corporation argued that the contraception mandate violated their individual religious beliefs as well as the religious beliefs of their corporation under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Obama administration contended that the provision was put in place to promote public health and ensure that “women have equal access to health care services.” The solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., also added that the decision on which method of contraception to use should be held between a patient and his or her doctor, as opposed to the patient’s employer. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group, submitted an amicus brief in support of the provision and said that many women cannot afford proper methods of contraception and that striking down the law could disproportionately affect the poor.
In a decision written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, the Supreme Court held that closely held corporations, as “persons”, do not have to provide insurance that covers contraception if it contradicts with the religious beliefs of the corporation.
The Supreme Court was careful to qualify that this ruling only applied to closely held corporations, meaning corporations with a small group of private shareholders, and not to their larger, publicly traded counterparts. The Court was also very clear on what this ruling implied for religiously based racial discrimination. “The Government has a compelling interest in providing equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal,” said Justice Alito.
However, Kent Greenfield, a professor of law at Boston College Law School, questioned these qualifications and noted the lack of language against other forms of discrimination.
In a piece for SCOTUSblog.com, he said, “I am unpersuaded. Wal-Mart, for example, is publicly traded. But a majority of its stock is owned by the Walton family, and they could impose their religious beliefs on the company with ease. Nothing in the logic of today’s opinion would limit the company’s ability to claim a Hobby Lobby waiver from, for example, state laws like those existing in Massachusetts and a number of other states requiring the company to not discriminate against LGBT employees.”
Political and judicial analysts throughout the country have since been projecting the various sorts of implications this ruling may have on the future of gender inequality, the Affordable Care Act and future Supreme Court cases. However, we’ll have to wait until next October when the next term starts for these implications to become clear.