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Posted on April 9, 2014 at 7:42 PM

by Dr. Patricia Mayer, Bioethics Program Alumna (2009)

Late last month, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether Hobby Lobby, a privately owned chain of 640 arts and crafts stores, may deny its employees insurance coverage for things like birth control pills, emergency contraceptives and IUDs. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employers are required to provide health care that covers all forms of contraception at no cost. However, the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby argue that the company should not be required to provide contraceptive choices that violate the owner’s religious beliefs, particularly birth control methods that they believe “induce abortions”, such as the morning-after pill or the IUD.

Hobby Lobby’s owners are appealing to the Supreme Court for an exemption to the ACA contraceptive requirements on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That act stipulates the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”.

Now Hobby Lobby’s owners are not asking for exemption from the obligation to provide insurance. In fact, they believe that providing heath insurance to their 14,000+ employees a moral obligation, but they do not want to pay for an insurance plan that covers certain types of contraceptives. They’ve even stated publicly that this obligation to provide their employees with health insurance is so strong it precludes them from discontinuing insurance coverage (instead of paying a new tax under the employer obligations of the ACA) even though this would then allow their employees to obtain insurance through the new health exchanges. Insurance plans available through the exchanges all provide complete contraceptive coverage in accordance with the ACA.

But should for-profit businesses be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate? Do these companies have the same rights of religious freedom as individuals under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

I believe it would be wrong for the Supreme Court to grant Hobby Lobby’s request for an exemption. A private for-profit company, even one with religiously devout owners, should not dictate which legal, available, medical treatments an employee may receive by contradicting a federal law that represents a national decision – though not a consensus. While the Supreme Court has allowed exemptions to the contraceptive mandate of the ACA, they are few and highly specific, such as church employers. Even religiously-owned health care institutions (such as Catholic hospitals) have not been granted this exemption.

To grant such an exemption would represent unjust discrimination against a group of employees based on morally irrelevant factors such as youth, gender, and reproductive capability. The ACA clearly stipulates particular health care services must be provided. So it is not for a group of individuals (such as the family that owns Hobby Lobby), by way of a for-profit nationwide corporate employer, to deny its employees those services.

It is also not for the Supreme Court to damage the integrity of the ACA by granting such exemptions.

The owners of Hobby Lobby are free to make business decisions in accordance with their faith (such as closing on Sundays). But they are not free to impose their beliefs on their employees by seeking to control their personal health care choices.

Hobby Lobby has a viable option for avoiding involvement with contraceptive choices: by getting out of the health insurance business. Hobby Lobby could drop its employee insurance coverage altogether and pay the modest $2,000 per person yearly tax incurred by doing so. Employees could then obtain their own insurance through the exchanges. Hobby Lobby’s attorney points out this would cost the corporation the current tax breaks it receives from providing insurance and might also force the company to pay higher wages to attract employees willing to buy their own insurance. These statements may be true, but they are also irrelevant.

In a pluralistic society, we tolerate a variety of beliefs without allowing persons to impose those beliefs on others. If the Supreme Court agrees with Hobby Lobby, why would other for-profit corporations not follow suit with other objections? What would prevent corporations from declining coverage for other services based on “religious objections”? What if corporations want exemptions from covering HIV treatment based on religious objections to homosexuality or exemptions from treating Trichinosis on the basis that it is immoral to eat pork?

No corporation should make health care decisions for its employees. Hobby Lobby should abide by the provisions of the ACA, or get out of the way of its employees by paying the “penalty” tax, increasing wages if it must, and allowing employees to select their own plans from the insurance exchanges.

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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