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US Supreme Court to Weigh Employer’s Vs. Employee’s Religious Liberty


Most Americans get health insurance through their employers, and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul isn’t changing that. But a new requirement that contraception be covered - unless the employer is a religious organization - is being challenged in a case that goes before the Supreme Court on March 25.

Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, is one of two family-owned companies involved in the Supreme Court case.

Its multibillionaire chief executive is David Green. If his firm’s health insurance plan provided a contraceptive that is used after intercourse -- such as the so-called "morning after pill" -- to an employee, his evangelical Christian family would be party to an abortion, said his son and company president Steve Green.

“This is an issue of life, that we cannot be a part of taking life. And so to be in a situation where our government is telling us we have to be, is incredible,” he said in a corporate video.

The Supreme Court will have to consider two tricky legal questions. One is whether for-profit corporations have a right to religious freedom similar to what the U.S. Constitution gives to citizens. And the other is, even if that’s not the case, whether business owners’ religious rights come before those of their employees.

VOA was not allowed to interview employees at Hobby Lobby or the other company in the case, Conestoga Wood Specialties. It is owned by a family of Mennonites, a traditional Protestant group.

But polls show that while the overwhelming majority of Americans favor contraceptive coverage, many think business owners who have moral objections should not be forced to provide it.

“If I was an employer or had employees under me, I would probably want to fight that just because I don’t feel it’s the right thing to do,” said Julie Jackson, a nurse from Arizona on a visit to Washington.

“To me, it’s not the employer’s position or right to be able to dictate what their employees - what types of services they get,” said Robyn Jardine, a family therapist from Arkansas.

A Hobby Lobby and Conestoga victory could have wide-ranging implications, and may even give license to discrimination, said Caroline Fredrickson of the left-leaning American Constitution Society.

She gave the example of a taxi driver “who doesn’t believe that women should appear in public by themselves” and decides not to give them rides unless they are accompanied by a man.

“Right now that would be illegal,” said Fredrickson. “But can we say after such a ruling that it wouldn’t be a burden on his religious beliefs?”

A ruling the other way, however, could clear the way for restrictions on religious practice. The example given is a ban on kosher and halal slaughter, as some European countries have instituted, said Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby.

“It would say to Americans that you’re not able to live out your faith in how you run a family business. And so this could have serious impacts, especially for minority faiths," she said.

Experts say the controversy is particular to America’s system of employer-provided health insurance, and would not be an issue for business owners in a single-payer system in which the state provides health care services.

The Supreme Court has a slight conservative majority. But that may not be a factor in this case. Last month, Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have let bakeries, florists and wedding photographers refuse to do business at same-sex weddings.

A decision on the Supreme Court case is expected within several months.

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