The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday completed its work for this troubling term, handing out two more decisions that landed on predictably partisan positions. Each carries wide-ranging though different repercussions.
In a broadly followed case, the justices, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that closely held and family-run corporations — such as plaintiffs Hobby Lobby Stores and the Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. — may decline on religious grounds to offer employees certain kinds of contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans. Kansas City’s J.E. Dunn Corp. filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Hobby Lobby. As a family-controlled construction firm, it may very well be covered by the ruling, with women employees at risk of losing benefits available to most insured Americans.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito was clear that his opinion took a narrow view: “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.”
Put another way, the court’s majority was far more interested in denying women access to certain types of birth control than in promoting the idea of overall corporate religiosity.
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Given this regressive ruling, the Obama administration must move swiftly to find alternative ways to make coverage available to women who will be denied certain birth control choices simply by working for companies that deem their religious rights greater than those of their workers.
The Hobby Lobby ruling, in this mid-term election year, will add fuel to the political fire of progressives and women voters who correctly perceive the further erosion of individual rights and the backward march toward discrimination that result whenever the warriors of the ultra-conservative class have their way.
The court’s majority has effectively said that some planned births, family size decisions and other private choices can be held partly hostage to an employer’s religious preferences in 2014. In our society, which is based on religious freedom, there is little freedom to be found in a decision that grants an employer outsized authority over employees.
Also on Monday, the court gave a boost to the anti-labor bandwagon, ruling 5-4 in an Illinois case that certain home-based health-care workers, who objected to union representation, should not be required to pay “fair-share” fees under the state’s collective-bargaining agreement. The decision, in Harris v. Quinn, bodes ill for public employee unions everywhere, especially those that represent Medicaid-funded home-care workers. Alito, affirming his right-wing sensibilities, also wrote the majority opinion in this case.
In the scheme of things, neither of Monday’s decisions does as much damage to the American landscape as the Supreme Court’s abhorrent and poorly reasoned ruling this session in the McCutcheon case. That was the landmark embarrassment that expanded the rights of the wealthy to dominate political campaigns and the way our system of government works — or doesn’t — for the rest of us. Again, the court conferred primacy to corporations and their wealthy owners.
In a new Gallup poll of the public’s confidence in government, the Supreme Court and President Barack Obama are running neck and neck. Sure, the numbers of those who trust each branch register a paltry 30 and 29 percent, respectively. (Congress, a perennial laggard in this department, has reached a historical low — 7 percent.)
After completing another mostly disappointing term — a rare highlight was Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in the McCutcheon case —the court’s decision-making is not likely to move the needle of trustworthiness upward.