• Enshrining discrimination
    July 02,2014

    The Supreme Court demonstrated again that it favors the rights of corporations over the rights of individual citizens, ruling that owners of some companies can impose their religious beliefs on employees by denying them health care coverage for contraception.

    It is a stunning misreading of the nature of human rights. On the one hand, there are the rights of the owners of two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, to refuse to provide coverage for forms of birth control they believe violate their religious principles. On the other hand, there are the rights of thousands of employees to equal and fair treatment under the law — which includes the right to fair administration of the Affordable Care Act and the right not to be subject to someone else’s religious beliefs.

    As in the Citizens United case on campaign finance, the court sided with the companies. Companies are nothing other than people who join together to do business, according to the court. Limiting the religious freedom of the companies to discriminate against women in the Hobby Lobby case, or to spend unchecked money on politics in Citizens United, violates the rights of those people who make up the companies, according to the court majority.

    But in neither case are the rights of the corporate bosses compromised by limits on their activities. They need not use contraceptives. They are free to counsel rejection of contraceptive use. Nor are they required to offer health care coverage in the first place. But their right to hold their own views on birth control is not abridged because they are forbidden from imposing those views on others.

    Companies are something other than individual citizens. They are economic entities created and defined by law. They participate in the economy, and so they have responsibilities as economic actors. Whatever their beliefs, they are not allowed to discriminate racially, religiously or on the basis of gender. They must follow rules ensuring that the public is not harmed by their activities. They have also been entrusted with a role in administering the nation’s health care system, a role they take upon themselves when they offer health insurance. As economic actors, they should not be allowed to use their role in providing health care as a wedge to impose their religious beliefs on others.

    The three members of Congress from Vermont decried the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. “A woman’s access to health care should not depend on the religious views and conscience of her employer,” said Rep. Peter Welch.

    Sen. Patrick Leahy said, “To these justices, your boss’s private views can trump your own medical needs and health insurance choices.”

    That notion, held by the five-man majority of the court, is offensive on several grounds. It is offensive on constitutional grounds for how it denigrates the rights of individuals in favor of corporations. It is offensive on public health grounds for how it allows companies to undermine access to health care. It is offensive as it relates to women’s rights and the ongoing campaign by conservatives to treat women as second-class citizens when it comes to reproductive health.

    Conservatives treated the Hobby Lobby ruling as a victory. The religious views of the corporate officers of the two companies have now received the blessing of the high court. That it has come at the cost of the health care rights of thousands of women is not so important.

    The court tried to tailor its ruling so that it would apply only to closely held private companies, not publicly traded companies. But it applied its ruling to that type of company only because that was the type that had brought suit. Why would not the same principles apply to General Motors or other large companies that were so foolish as to wage war on the rights of their employees?

    Politically, the ruling may figure into the coming political campaign as Democrats underscore what they call the Republican war on women. It is a war, like the Republican war on immigrants, that is carried out in the name of high principle, but so far voters have not shown those principles are shared by a majority of voters.

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