Today, the Supreme Court heard two cases that have major implications for the intersection of religious liberty and health care in America. While Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius were argued before the Court, hundreds of activists voiced their opinions outside the Court’s chambers.
The Court will decide whom the so-called “contraception mandate” law in the Affordable Care Act applies to. Both of the challengers to this section of the 2010 health law say that providing certain forms of birth control violates their sincerely held religious views. Though there are already exemptions in law for churches and some nonprofits, this case will decide whether for-profit corporations are offered protection under the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment to deny contraception coverage to their employees.
The government argued in part that corporations aren’t people and therefore cannot be protected by the First Amendment. Women’s health care advocates say that striking down the mandate will strip access to birth control for millions of women, pointing out that 99 percent of sexually active women have used birth control and that 58 percent of women use birth control for non-contraceptive purposes.
Hobby Lobby argued that the people at the top of the corporations should be protected by the First Amendment from being compelled by the government to make a decision that violates their conscience. They say that Hobby Lobby would have to pay more than $400 million per year in fines for not providing coverage for birth control in their company health plan, thus creating a burden for people with sincerely held religious beliefs in the marketplace.
Most of those demonstrating at the Court today were with groups supporting the contraception mandate, including a broad swath of religious groups. Sara Hutchinson, Domestic Program Director of Catholics for Choice, was on hand to support the mandate. She argued that this case was really about religious liberty for people of all faiths, not just for evangelical Christians.
“What’s at stake today is religious liberty for everyone. Whether you are Jewish, Christian, secular, or Buddhist, you should have religious liberty without being discriminated against for your faith,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone should have the same access to health care.”
During a demonstration called “Not My Boss’s Business” on the court steps, more than 25 people gave two-minute testimonies in front of a banner with 5,000 signatures of support from people of faith. One of those speakers was Latishia James, a Master of Divinity Candidate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
“I am studying for the ministry because my faith calls me to serve, and in particular, to ensure that all people have the resources and respect they need to experience God’s kingdom here on Earth,” James said. “The notion that you don’t deserve religious liberty because you don’t happen to own the company is offensive, immoral, and just plain wrong.”
A smaller, but equally passionate group of mostly women argued, “religious freedom is everyone’s business.” The group standing with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood argued that the case could have major implications for Americans’ ability to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of pro-life advocacy group Americans United for Life, defended corporations’ rights to make health care decisions based on religious conscience.
“Neither Conestoga nor Hobby Lobby oppose all contraception, but filed suit because the HHS mandate forces them to provide drugs and devices mislabeled by the FDA as ‘contraception’ but are actually known to have life-ending effects,” Yoest said.
Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said that the Court’s decision could greatly limit the freedom to worship outside of a religious assembly.
“The other side is trying to define religious freedom down to just the freedom to worship,” Scheidler said. “People should have the freedom to live out their values in all areas of their life, including how they run their businesses.”
Early analysis of the case indicates that the Court was closely divided on the issue. A decision will be handed down in the coming months.
Joey Longley is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.