Slippery slope: how the Hobby Lobby verdict may affect us allPosted: July 2, 2014
“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…Would the exemption extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations?…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?… The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissent, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
(Much of today’s blog post is inspired by a discussion at Democratic Underground started by one of my favorite posters, a thoughtful and erudite man known as The Magistrate. His words are so timely and prescient that I am presenting many of them here, with his permission and my great appreciation.)
You may think the Supremes’ Hobby Lobby decision won’t ever affect you. Maybe you’ll never work at Hobby Lobby. Maybe you’re an unmarried male. Maybe you’re a woman past child-bearing age. Maybe you’ve made a decision not to use birth control. So maybe you think there’s no immediate backwash for you from this decision. You may be wrong.
There is nothing in the Hobby Lobby decision that prevents an employer from forbidding an employee from spending even a portion of his or her salary, even separate from his or her health care coverage, from buying birth control.
There is no limiting principle in this decision to prevent an employer from telling an employee: “the compensation you receive from me for your time and labor cannot be spent on something I personally find immoral.”
As I wrote back in November 2013: Your employee-paid health care is part of your pay. Your employer has no more business telling you what to do with it than he does telling you how to spend your salary. The premium he pays to the health insurer is part of your compensation, part of the wage paid: something you receive in exchange for labor. His contribution to your health coverage is simply sent by him on your behalf as payment of (part of) the health coverage premium. He does not provide the health services, any more than he provides anything else you purchase with your pay.
Your employer is your agent in acquiring health insurance. But that insurance is part of what you receive for labor, a portion of your compensation, and is neither purchased by nor provided by him.
If someone asks their agent to do something, the agent may have scruples about what he’s asked to do and has the ability to decline. But instead when a law tells someone’s agent to do a thing, and the agent has scruples against it, the proper course is to back off, to drop it, to decline being the agent.
In short: if providing health insurance to its employees would require Hobby Lobby to do something its owners has scruples over, Hobby Lobby is free to quit being the agent, to not include health insurance as part of its compensation. They would have to pay a fine, true; but doesn’t having a clear conscience require a price to be paid?
What Hobby Lobby does not have any right to do, cannot have any right to do, is require people to abide by its owners’ own religious beliefs as a condition of employment. This is what this verdict, this exemption from the law regarding employee compensation amounts to.
Your employer pays your wages, which he quite possibly views as “his money.” And if he can require you to accept a compensation package that does not provide birth control as part of your health insurance, which is in fact stating that your compensation (the insurance part) cannot be spent on birth control…
Might he say also you cannot spend the rest of “his money” that he “gives out” to you on contraceptives, health care to cover it, or anything else he feels goes against his religion? There is no safeguard in this decision to limit such an attempt.
If Hobby Lobby has its way, a employer with “closely held beliefs” could refuse to pay the minimum wage because a worker might spend some of her paycheck on birth control or other “immoral” activities.
A Muslim or Orthodox business owner could withhold an employee’s pay because he or she might purchase bacon. A Mormon employer could decline payroll because his employees might spend money on coffee. A conservative Catholic or Protestant boss may hold back on the pay envelope if he disapproves of an employee’s lifestyle and the purchases that go along with it. And given the recent push to pay employees by (programmable) debit card, rather than paper check or funds transfer, enforcement of this very thing could be simpler than you might suppose. Again, bear in mind there is nothing in the Hobby Lobby decision to keep this from happening.
Justice Alito, writing for the majority, tried valiantly to say this decision is extremely narrow and not to be construed to support other “closely held concerns.” Justice Alito knows better. Supreme Court decisions, especially controversial ones, get thrown around like cheap Chinese-made paper streamers at Hobby Lobby’s victory celebration. It’s a blow for women’s rights and another boost for corporate power from these very, very pro-corporate Supremes.
One of my favorite bloggers, Mr. Blunt and Cranky, had this to say back last fall:
If employers are allowed to use their personal beliefs to avoid paying for health care that they find objectionable, this writer submits that many tightwads will quickly “convert” to some sort of faith-healing sect in order to save money by denying their employees the care that that need. Soon, there would be few, if any, people covered by employer-based health care plans.
Think it couldn’t happen? Think again. In a society that rewards greed and glorifies ignorance, it is not only possible; it is predictable.
And to quote another favorite blogger, The Rude Pundit, from just yesterday:
How is this a victory for “religious liberty” in general? Because unless each and every employee of Hobby Lobby gets to opt out of whatever laws offend their god, unless every citizen gets to do the same, picking and choosing the laws, every person a cult compound unto him or herself, then all this ruling does is say that if you’re wealthy and own a company, you can impose your religion on your employees, the laws be damned. That seems to be the opposite of liberty.
So don’t work at Hobby Lobby if you don’t want to. But don’t think the Supremes’ Hobby Lobby decision will never affect you. As Justice Ginsburg said the other day: the Court has ventured into a minefield, and we may all catch some shrapnel.