When the Supreme Court meets on Monday for the final time this session, the justices will issue their much-anticipated ruling on a case pitting the religious rights of employers against the right of women to choose their form of birth control.
Under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, employers must cover contraception for women at no extra charge as part of a range of preventive benefits required in employee health plans. But dozens of Christian-right employers, including the owners of the crafts chain Hobby Lobby, say that providing certain contraceptive coverage impinges on their freedom of religion. Hobby Lobby and furniture maker Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. object particularly to contraceptive forms they believe can work after conception, including Plan B, ella and expensive intrauterine devices.
The Obama administration says coverage for birth control is important to women’s health and reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
The court has never recognized a for-profit corporation’s religious rights under federal law or the Constitution. But court watchers say it’s very possible that the right-wing majority on the bench will do just that on Monday. Some observers expect a limited ruling that reserves the right only for corporations that are held under tight family control.
During a hearing on the case in March, several justices expressed concerns that such a decision could lead to religious objections to covering blood transfusions or vaccinations.
Prominent Washington lawyer Paul Smith told The Associated Press that another important question is how the decision would apply to “laws that protect people from discrimination, particularly LGBT people.”
In the Hobby Lobby case, even if the court finds the company has a right to enact workplace policies based on the owners’ religious beliefs, it still has to weigh whether the government’s decision to have employee health plans pay for birth control takes precedence over companies’ religious objections.
Business pundits say that although Hobby Lobby might win the case, it could tarnish the company’s brand as anti-woman and politically divisive. Hobby Lobby does not object to covering male employees’ costs for vasectomies.
The company has 560 locations that bring in a total of $3.3 billion in revenue and employ over 23,000 people. Hobby Lobby has increased sales by roughly 50 percent since 2011, according to a Huffington Post blog.
The company’s growth is taking it into new markets where the Supreme Court case will overshadow the first impression it makes on many prospective customers.
Hobby Lobby has already gotten caught in the headlights for its religious extremism. During last year’s holiday season, a Jewish customer in New Jersey asked the employee of a local Hobby Lobby why the store does not carry Hanukkah items. The employee replied it was due to the owners’ religious beliefs. "We don't cater to you people," he said.
The incident set off a national brouhaha that is likely to be repeated on Monday.