CLUW Criticizes Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Ruling; Dissenting Justice Ginsburg Says Principle Will Let Firms Flout Minimum Wage, Other Laws

WASHINGTON –The Coalition of Labor Union Women strongly criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-man majority’s Hobby Lobby ruling, saying the justices are denying women access to contraception.  Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leading the dissenters, warned the decision opens the way to firms to flout other laws, including the minimum wage.

The GOP-named majority said owners of privately held corporations have the religious rights of “persons” under the Constitution.  Justice Samuel Alito said the owners can use those religious rights to deny women access to contraception – access mandated by the Affordable Care Act – if contraception violated the owners’ religious beliefs.

His decision was silent on the workers’ religious rights, and whether they would allow the worker to seek contraception.

Though Alito stated the court’s majority decision applied only to contraceptive rights, law professors and other analysts could find nothing in his decision to back that statement.  Women’s rights groups, including the Coalition of Labor Union Women, blasted it.

The court is “giving these employers the right to allow their religious beliefs to trump the health needs of their employees – making it harder for American families,” CLUW President Connie Leak  said.  CLUW joined a friend-of-the-court brief from the National Women’s Law Center, opposing Hobby Lobby’s religious freedom argument.

“CLUW views this ruling as a dangerous precedent, as it permits for the first time for-profit corporations with nothing to do with religion to refuse to follow the law on religious grounds.

“The denial of contraceptive coverage is seen as discrimination against women and an attack on workers’ right to basic health coverage.  CLUW will continue to educate our members and aggressively fight attempts to restrict the rights of working women on the shop floor and as it pertains to their private decisions on reproduction.”

Ginsburg, leading the 4-person court minority, said Hobby Lobby  was even worse than that  It would create “havoc” with compliance with other laws, she warned.  Firms could flout those statutes, too, claiming each law they oppose violates the firms’ owners’ religion.

“The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives,” Ginsburg said.  “Congress acted on that understanding when, as part of a nationwide insurance program intended to be comprehensive, it called for coverage of preventive care responsive to women’s needs.”

The 5-man majority threw that understanding out, and not just in health care, she said. “In a decision of startling breadth, the court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law – saving only tax laws — they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” she began.

“Compelling governmental interests in uniform compliance with the law, and disadvantages that religion-based opt-outs impose on others, hold no sway, the court decides, at least when there is a ‘less restrictive alternative.’  And such an alternative, the court suggests, there always will be whenever…the government, i.e., the general public, can pick up the tab.”

Ginsburg explained the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, did not envision anything that extreme.

But the court majority’s reading of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act “dictated the extraordinary religion-based exemptions today’s decision endorses,” she said.  Congress passed RFRA after the justices ruled a Native American tribe could not smoke peyote as part of a religious ritual.

“In the court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith – in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ.  Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent,” Ginsburg wrote.  The other three dissenting justices signed on to her statement.

And once you start letting for-profit firms opt out of obeying laws due to religious belief, where do you stop, Ginsburg asked.

Ginsburg noted the court decided in 1982 that a company owned by a member of the Old Order Amish could not avoid paying Social Security withholding taxes for its workers because Social Security’s existence countered the owners’ religious beliefs.  Then, she said, “The court recognized that allowing a religion-based exemption to a commercial employer would operate to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.”  Alito, she said, dismissed that ruling as “a tax case.”

But as a result of the majority’s Hobby Lobby ruling, “Where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative?” Ginsburg asked.  “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?

“Does it rank as a less-restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?   Because the court cannot easily answer that question, it proposes something else: Extension to commercial enterprises of the accommodation already afforded to nonprofit religion-based organizations.”

-PAI