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Letters & Op-Eds - 2014

After Hobby Lobby, What Next for Employees?

Jon O'Brien

21 July 2014

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision is a disaster for women, and we can lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Obama administration. In a futile attempt to keep religious extremists onside, the administration threw some women’s rights under the bus. In doing so, the president’s team failed politically, professionally and personally to do what they said they stood for when Obama ran for election in 2008 and re-election in 2012.

When the Supreme Court permitted discrimination against yet more women who rely on their bosses for insurance coverage, this amounted to two of the three Constitutional authorities in the United States, the Executive and the Judiciary, ruling against these women. It is now up to the Legislative branch to right this wrong.

The decision may yet have an impact on all Americans. As well as mitigating the immediate harm, a wider battle must be fought against the gross distortion of religious freedom that lies at the heart of these decisions. Our government needs to fight for the rights and religious liberty of every woman and every American, not just those who have the ear of the powerful.

Catholics for Choice is in both contests for the long haul. We know this benefit is important and makes a real difference to women’s lives. We know that Catholics are courageous enough to follow their own consciences when making moral decisions. We will keep reminding policymakers at every level of government that their job is to serve justice and equity, not religious extremism.

How We Got Here 

In 2010, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave us its playbook for “religious liberty” when it created the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. At that time, one of the six concessions the bishops wanted from the government was for any employer to be able to deny contraception coverage to employees by citing “religious freedom.” As USCCB lobbyist Anthony Picarello (who was appointed by the president to his Advisory Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) put it, that included everybody from a religious organization to a “Taco Bell.”

Judging from the failure of the USCCB’s three “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns (which, in case you missed it, ended again this year to little fanfare on July 4), Catholics have been unconvinced by the bishops’ attempt to redefine religious liberty. Not surprising, considering the polling that shows Catholics, like the general public, do not forgo birth control, shun LGBT couples, oppose abortion or reject in vitro fertilization.

Undaunted, the bishops have taken to state and federal legislatures and the courts in an attempt to impose their rules on everyone.

The bishops’ agenda can be seen by following the money—but it may not be the money you think. To listen to the University of Notre Dame and the Little Sisters of the Poor alleging there is moral complicity involved in signing a form to not include contraception in employee health plans, you’d think it was about who’s paying for contraception.

If we go back to their 2010 playbook, however, we can see that the bishops really want to protect their access to billions in federal contracts while keeping a license to ignore anti-discrimination policies. To accomplish this, the bishops were willing to take a rather un-Catholic step.

In the conflict over contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the bishops led the charge of those arguing for conscience protections for corporate entities. Their reasoning was Byzantine but Catholic teachings are clear: only individuals have a conscience.

Another Catholic value the bishops ignored was workers’ rights. In seeking to privilege employers, the bishops lobbied for an ever-widening series of accommodations and exemptions. Now, after the Hobby Lobby decision, for-profit corporations may deny contraceptive coverage, and potentially many other services, by citing their corporate “conscience.”

We’re at a crossroads when it comes to individual conscience and religious liberty rights: will it get worse, or will it get better?

The Future

The USCCB celebrated the Supreme Court ruling with a promise “to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.” The bishops don’t seem to account for the general public, the Catholics and non-Catholics alike who believe that corporations don’t have “religious liberty” rights and that workers’ conscience rights must be protected.

We now need Congress to institute immediate protection for all women’s reproductive health coverage, as well as long-term fixes so that a corporate “religious freedom” can’t be used to discriminate against individuals’ freedom. The original champions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have stated that their intent to preserve and protect the shield of religious freedom had been turned on its head by the court, to instead become a sword wielded by religious extremists seeking to redefine religious freedom in our country. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the majority opinion didn’t and couldn’t rely on the First Amendment because its reasoning was an absolute perversion of the individual religious liberty rights guaranteed by our Constitution.

Having America’s 200-year-old foundational principles on our side is a tremendous advantage, but the Hobby Lobby aftermath is not a contest to be watched from the sidelines. We need state legislatures to promote “Boss Bills” like those progressing in North Carolina, Michigan, New York and Washington, DC. At the federal level, legislation has been introduced to protect some women’s rights, though it does not include any protection for the “parish housekeepers” routinely excluded in discussions of contraception coverage.

Sadly, this fight does not end with contraception or women’s rights. Only one day after the Hobby Lobby ruling, religious extremists who are close to the administration—guided by former staff hired directly by the president—began demanding that employers’ “religious freedom” be extended to discrimination against LGBT people. Surprise, surprise, this is another item on the bishops’ 2010 wish list.

The Obama administration has yet to acknowledge the damage it has wrought in the name of compromise. By being more than willing to trade some women’s rights away, it has repeatedly listened to the bishops and other conservative religious leaders, rather than to people of faith, who want sexual and reproductive freedom guaranteed for themselves and everybody else. The administration needs to start working for all people, rather than for some bosses and to appease the bishops’ demands.

We at Catholics for Choice have redoubled our efforts to fight for real religious freedom. As part of that work, we are proud to be a part of theCoalition for Liberty & Justice, an alliance of 60 faith-based, secular and other nonprofits working to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and opposing those who seek to enshrine a right to discriminate into the nation’s laws. Hobby Lobby was one step back, and it was a big one, but we’re not going anywhere—and neither are the majority of Catholics, including those who vote.

This letter was originally published by the Huffington Post.