Women’s rights central to ruling on business owners’ religious beliefs and contraception

Opinion: Principle of separation of church and state blurred

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 12:01

A ruling by the US supreme court on Monday implicitly declares that religious belief can trump scientific truth when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.

In a five-four decision, the judges found in favour of family-owned arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby which had refused to provide employees with insurance cover for a number of forms of contraception to which the owners had moral objection.

The Obama administration had laid it down that insurance cover under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) should include the full range of medical services, including birth control, approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Hobby Lobby asked the court to strike down this element of the Obamacare Act. It was joined in the action by a Christian bookstore chain and a woodworking firm owned by a Mennonite family.

Hobby Lobby didn’t object to all contraception services but to methods it defined as abortifacient. It specified four procedures that either prevented implantation of a fertilised ovum or acted as emergency contraception – the “morning after pill”. Lawyers for the government argued that an overwhelming majority of doctors and scientists did not regard these procedures as abortion. Hobby Lobby president Steve Green retorted, “We believe life begins at conception.”

The company’s lawyers didn’t challenge the fact that the government had the great bulk of scientific opinion on its side. Their case was grounded in assertions that Obamacare violated a 1993 law guaranteeing freedom of religion and that this must apply to companies as well as to individual citizens since Congress had defined corporations as “people”. Thus, it was argued, Green’s religious convictions took precedence. The court limited application of its ruling to “closely held” companies – firms owned by a few people.

Hobby Lobby had been founded in Oklahoma in 1972 by David Green, estimated by Forbes now to be worth $5 billion. Green still owns and runs the company with his wife, daughter and son. (Whatever the merits of the case, Hobby Lobby would appear to come within any reasonable definition of “closely held”. However, lawyers are likely to earn considerable sums as cases involving more loosely structured businesses come before the courts for decision on whether they, too, qualify for inclusion in the category.)

Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion and, according to their religious beliefs, the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” Alito insisted that the ruling applied only to the specific matters raised in the Hobby Lobby case and could not be extended to cover other medical procedures.

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