Hobby Lobby’s Effects Are Being Felt Beyond Birth Control
It’s been almost three months since the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that for-profit, secular businesses who have religious objections to birth control may defy federal rules requiring that they include contraceptive care in their employees’ health plans because it violates the employer’s religious liberty rights.
The ripple effect of the Hobby Lobby decision could lead to a cascade of poor outcomes for the nation. And now, the repercussions of that decision are starting to come out — including the potential for it to be broadened even farther and threaten the rights of even more people, including children.
First: A federal judge in Utah cited the Hobby Lobby decision to say that a member of a polygamous religious sect could refuse to testify in a federal investigation into alleged violations of child labor laws because he objects to testifying on religious grounds. The case involves the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which broke off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the domination commonly known as Mormons — due to a century-old dispute over polygamy. (The sect’s leader is currently in prison after he was convicted of sexually assaulting two underage girls — the youngest of whom was 12 years-old — that he claimed have taken as wives.) Before Hobby Lobby, it’s unlikely that the claim would prevail. Although federal law offers fairly robust protections for religious liberty, this law only applies when the federal government “substantially burden[s] a person’s exercise of religion.” Hobby Lobby, however, largely wrote the word “substantially” out of this law.
Second: Religious conservatives are admitting what they really want out of Hobby Lobby, which is to push the decision even further and restrict birth control access even more. Last month, the Obama administration announced an accommodation for employers with religious objections: they can exempt themselves completely from the federal rule requiring employer-provided health plans to cover birth control, so long as they inform the government that they seek a religious exemption and tells them which company administers their health plan. But now, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — the same Becket Fund that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful lawsuit in the Supreme Court — has filed a court document on behalf of Ave Maria University, saying that even that degree of accommodation is insufficient. Ava Maria doesn’t even think they should be required to let the government know that they are not providing their employees birth control at all. If the justices honor Ave Maria’s idiosyncratic objection, then it is unclear that the Obama administration could design any accommodation that will survive the Supreme Court.
Third: What if children with parents who have religious objections to vaccines could attend public schools, and those public schools could not compel them to get vaccines? That is a very real possibility with widening religious liberty exemptions. In all 50 states, schools require students to get vaccinated for preventable diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and chicken pox before they enroll. But parents are increasingly obtaining a non-medical exemption to the requirement through a “philosophical objection” loophole. For example, compared to just seven years ago, twice as many California parents are deciding against vaccinating their kindergartners, according to public health experts in the state. This past year, California has faced a record-breaking whooping cough epidemic.
BOTTOM LINE: The Hobby Lobby ruling is already having effects that go beyond the Supreme Court ruling. These decisions ignore a fundamental fact: religious liberty is the right to practice religion as you wish and the freedom to not have religion imposed on you by others, especially corporations.