Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case is causing LGBT advocates to question what practical impacts it may have in LGBT people’s lives as corporate personhood advances and for-profit businesses now ‘have’ religious beliefs in our nation’s courts.
First, an explanation of the case may be helpful, and Mark Silk of Religion News Service provided an excellent background of some of the key issues and factors:
“When the decision comes out in June, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood will be given not an exemption to the contraception mandate but an accommodation comparable to what has been afforded to religious non-profits, under terms that define the nature and character of for-profit companies that can make free-exercise claims. Free exercise rights will thus be extended, but not at the expense of the government’s compelling interest in gender equity, which will be preserved via the requirement that the cost of contraceptive coverage be assumed by the insurers who administer the insurance plans of the qualifying companies…
“In order to understand the decision, you have to know that it is based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which tells the court that in order to overrule a claim of religious free exercise (against federal law), 1) the state must have a compelling interest to do so; and 2) in doing so it employs the least restrictive means. In Hobby Lobby, the court assumed (without coming to an actual determination) that the state interest in providing the full range of contraceptive services was compelling, but (as I predicted) found that the Obamacare mandate was not the least restrictive means of fulfilling that interest.”
dotCommonweal blogger Grant Gallicho pointed out that the decision applies only to corporations that are “closely held” (meaning fewer than five individuals own more than half the stock value of a company) and applies only to the Department of Health and Human Service’s contraception mandate. The Court explicitly states this ruling is not intended to allow people to use religious beliefs to deny other medical procedures or to allow racial discrimination. How the ruling may be used in cases of exual orientation and gender identity remain an open question. For a full round-up of what the ruling does and does not allow, see US Catholic‘s report here.
Still, the decision’s constraints are not allaying fears of LGBT advocates who see that the logic in the Hobby Lobby case may expand into other employment issues. A report in The Advocate stated:
“Activists had warned that if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties — the businesses that challenged Obamacare — could use their “sincerely held religious beliefs” to deny contraception to employees, then they might use the same power to deny health care to transgender people or might withhold coverage for HIV and AIDS treatment to LGBT employees…
“Some had warned that depending on the reach of the ruling, business owners might try to use the decision to object to mental health services or substance abuse treatment — health issues that disproportionately affect LGBT Americans.”
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, noted that she is ‘mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce’ and went on to explore that. ‘Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations,’ she wrote, ‘its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private. Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate.’
“Ginsburg further wrote, ‘Until today, religious exemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in ‘the commercial, profit-making world.’ Profit-making companies do not exist to further religious goals, and their employees are drawn from a multitude of faiths, she pointed out.”
Unsurprisingly, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) celebrated the ruling saying “justice has prevailed.” The National Catholic Reporter observed that other bishops reaffirmed their commitment to the USCCB’s ‘religious liberty’ campaign. You can read the USCCB’s full statement here. Despite the bishops’ support of the decions, so far, it seems, Americans disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling could have disturbing and harmful consequences for our country. By allowing privately held corporations to be exempt from compliance with laws with which they disagree on religious grounds, the Court may have unintentionally opened the door to enormous social confusion and instability. They may have also ushered in an era of increased discrimination, making it harder for many to access a wide range of services and benefits.
“While it may seem that this is a narrow ruling focused on how women access contraceptive medications, the reality is this judgment could have incredible ramifications throughout the U.S. This ruling might open the door for corporations not to provide benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, or not to cover appropriate health care services for transgender employees.
“Equally Blessed members said it is distressing to hear religious belief put forward as a rationale for continued discrimination, when most people understand the religion should be about respect, love, and inclusion.”
However, not all LGBT advocates are worried and some believe the debate will depend on whether President Obama signs a promised executive order protecting LGBT federal workers triggering new lawsuits. Religion News Service reports:
“If Obama signs the executive order or Congress passes ENDA (a bill stalled for 16 years), the same battle could ensue with religious owners of private businesses, said Kevin Theriot, vice president of religious freedom litigation for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the owners of Conestoga…
“Ian Thompson, of the American Civil Liberties Union, who specializes in legislation affecting the LGBT community, said that ‘while the court expanded corporate power, it made really clear that the decision was narrow. It will not operate as a shield from other kinds of discrimination laws.’
“Like Thompson, Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow pointed to the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, which made a point of saying the justices were talking only about health care and not opening the door for broad interpretations.”
In more hopeful news, Buzzfeed reports that the Supreme Court upheld California’s ban on ‘reparative therapy’ without comment. California will now be able to enforce a ban on services which try to ‘convert’ gay youth to a heterosexual orientation.
As for whether the Hobby Lobby case will cause increased LGBT discrimination by employers citing religious belief, it remains to be seen. LGBT people of faith must remain vigilant that their beliefs are not used to justify exclusion.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
America, “Hobby Lobby Reactions“