Does a corporation have the right to practice a religion? Does a woman have a right to accessible, basic health benefits if her boss objects on religious grounds? Those are among the questions raised in two similar cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on March 25 – Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and Conestoga Woods v Sebelius. Much attention has been paid in the media to what the employer’s rights are – the rights of women employees or of any workers with female dependents – not so much.
When the Obama Administration agreed with medical experts to require coverage of a range of preventive health care for women, including contraception, without co-pays or other out-of-pocket fees, it was a great victory for women and society in general. Finally, an official recognition that women’s health needs weren’t “other” – that they deserved the same treatment as the health care needs that men and women share. While government programs and many states had mandated such coverage, the decision was the first national statement that women with private insurance should have such benefits. The administration also decided that under the Affordable Care Act, only religious employers would be fully exempt from that requirement – meaning employers that are self-identified and legally recognized as religious organizations.
The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, claim their corporation should not have to include coverage of contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs, even if they are not a religious organization under the law. If Hobby Lobby wins, the door is open for any private employer to withhold any health coverage they might object to on religious grounds, like blood transfusions or vaccinations. Or employers might claim they can withhold services for particular populations of workers or consumers to whom they claim a moral objection, such as LGBT individuals and families, single women who become pregnant, and others. And the door shuts on women seeking equal and more affordable access to needed health care.
If Hobby Lobby wins, the door also shuts on women’s individual religious liberty – the right of a woman to make her own personal decisions on reproductive health care based on her own values and beliefs, faith-based or otherwise, unencumbered by the beliefs of her employer.
Insurance benefits are a critical part of the compensation women earn for working. But under the Hobby Lobby scenario, when a woman gets a job offer, she would have to be sure the religious beliefs of her potential new employer wouldn’t infringe on her access to needed health care. If she doesn’t, she could find herself required to check in with her employer to be sure her boss agreed with her most personal decisions. If she found some benefits excluded, she would have to pay out of pocket for them – or forego them altogether due to cost — and wonder what benefits might disappear next year. The damage to every woman’s rights would be substantial, and that hasn’t been allowed under existing law.
It shouldn’t be allowed going forward either. Women have fought hard for many years to win equal rights. We fought against the idea that we shouldn’t be allowed to vote because we were incapable of making political judgments. We fought the idea that men should be paid more because, after all, men need to support a household. We fought the idea that we were unsuited to be doctors or lawyers or soldiers or police officers. And we fought the idea that our health needs were somehow secondary – that standard health care was what men needed and what we needed was an add-on subject to negotiation.
The Affordable Health Care Act changed all that. If women are going to be full participants in the economy as men are, if their contributions to the national welfare are going to be valued as men’s are (including bearing children), then they must be treated equally in the marketplace. And their own religious beliefs can’t be trumped by the employer who signs their paycheck.