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SCOTUS, You've Got To Be Joking

Francesca Bessey |
July 2, 2014 | 5:59 p.m. PDT

Senior Opinion Editor

Corporations are not people.

Not for the first time, however, the American legal system has awarded them privileges as if they are.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in favor of craft store chain Hobby Lobby and furniture-maker Conestoga Wood in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, granting an exemption to “closely held corporations” from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers offer contraceptive coverage as part of healthcare packages for their employees.

SEE ALSO: Supreme Court Rules Private Companies Don't Need To Cover Contraception

The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, on the grounds that the contraception mandate violated the First Amendment rights of business owners, because it forces them to pay for reproductive care that goes against their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

As we are dealing with a mandate imposed on entire corporations, the question here quickly becomes: whose sincerely-held religious beliefs? Whose right to religious freedom has supposedly been trampled on?

The answer Hobby Lobby has offered us, and the answer that SCOTUS has affirmed, is that it’s the corporation’s rights. The corporation, which was designed with the specific intention of keeping a company’s ownership, financial windfalls and misdeeds from being pitted on any individual person, can apparently still act as a prop for an individual person’s religious beliefs. And then—apparently, according to this SCOTUS ruling—further serve as a tool to impose these religious beliefs upon the lives of their employees, in other words, to restrict the religious and moral autonomy of others. Unlike previous exemptions to the contraception mandate, which only applied to institutions with a specific religious affiliation, this ruling applies to any closely held for-profit corporation (any corporation with at least 50 percent of stock owned by five or fewer people) whose owners have “clear religious beliefs.”

SEE ALSO: 9 Companies That May Benefit From Contraception Ruling

For-profit corporations don’t exist to be anyone’s moral guide. They exist to make a profit. In this country, making a profit is a privilege that comes with certain responsibilities, including providing for the healthcare needs of your employees. An entity that exists for explicitly material purposes shouldn’t be allowed to shirk those responsibilities by claiming a moral high ground. What is more, this allowance is also completely without legal precedent. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor asserted as much in Ginsburg’s dissent on the decision:

Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise clause [of the First Amendment] or RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].

Not surprisingly, this over-extension of rights on one end of the spectrum has led to their oppression on the other, where the moral freedom granted to corporations has come at the expense of the moral autonomy of their employees. Women working for companies granted the exemption must now make a choice between adhering to the religious beliefs of their employers (by abstaining from non-procreative sex) and incurring sex-specific risks against which they will now be unable to protect themselves.

Hacking contraception coverage from healthcare benefits is much like refusing to pay for the treatment of breast cancer or urinary tract infections in that it disproportionately threatens the health and well-being of women over that of men. Pregnancy has consequences, and being the physical carrier of the pregnancy, it’s the woman who has to accept those consequences, no matter what. But when pregnancy is unintentional and the consequences unprepared for, the results can be devastating.

SEE ALSO: Justice Ginsburg's 35-Page Dissenting Opinion Turned Into Song

Contrary to popular belief, the government does not hand out free healthcare, free food, free housing or free childcare to women just because they have a baby—though if you meet certain criteria (and your state isn’t run by this guy), welfare programs might subsidize a percentage of these costs. And that's only the tip of the iceberg; as Eminem told us back in 2002, “Man, these g--damn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” They don’t buy car seats, toys, books, shoes or prenatal vitamins either. In other words, childbirth—and the subsequent 18-year task (some would say a lifetime) of child rearing—inevitably incurs a cost. A big one. Not to mention the act of carrying a developing fetus in your uterus for nine months and then squeezing it out of you through an 10-centimeter hole incurs a certain time and energy cost all its own.

Child support doesn’t make up for it, either. Assuming a single mother has the time and resources to go to family court, assuming she is able to complete the sometimes costly process of proving paternity, assuming the court is able to track down and compel the father to pay child support and assuming he has the money to pay, child support simply isn’t comparable to the risks and burdens incurred by pregnancy itself.

Not the least of which is death. Childbirth is the sixth most common cause of death among women in the United States, aged 20-34. But violence against pregnant women is so prevalent that they actually have a greater chance of being murdered, often at the hands of their current or former partners, than dying from a pregnancy-related medical issue. This risk is disproportionately higher for unmarried women and women under 24, the same women who are at high risk of an unplanned pregnancy. Pregnancy also brings with it a whole host of physiological ailments, including body aches, fatigue, heartburn, constipation, leg cramps, indigestion, hemorrhoids, dizziness and morning sickness—all of which can interfere with the ability to work, keep up a household or take care of other children.

And in the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid parental leave, thousands of women continue to lose their jobs each year after requesting on-the-job accommodations for their pregnancy.

SEE ALSO: 11 Ways America Was Still Backward In 2013

Unplanned pregnancy in the United States represents a scenario where a legally sanctioned act (sexual intercourse between two consenting adults, regardless of whether or not they are married, or want a child) presents a drastically higher risk for women than for men. Women also incur this risk for sex acts that are not legally sanctioned and to which they did not consent (i.e. rape). Contraception is a nationally mandated part of healthcare to mitigate this unequal risk. Denying a woman’s access to contraception, however, denies her protection from these risks, in other words, denies her equal protection under the law. If the SCOTUS ruling were a piece of state legislation, it would be unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment for this very reason: it denies men and women equal protection from the consequences of the same act. As it stands, the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to state law and not Supreme Court rulings, but that doesn’t mean we, as a supposedly democratic country, should be comfortable with the legal imposition of inequality, which goes directly against one of our core tenets.

In America, one person’s rights end where another’s rights begin. In the same way that religious freedom cannot be used to justify physical harm to another person, so it should not be used to justify putting women at unnecessary and disproportionate physical and financial risk.

This is indeed the door we have opened. Other religious exemptions commonly held by people in this country include objections to blood transfusions, antidepressants, certain kinds of antibiotics and CPR. The very principle of religious freedom is for the government to remain neutral in matters of religion so as not to favor one religion above any other and to maintain a separation of church and state. As Justice Ginsburg points out in her dissent:

Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be "perceived as favoring one religion over another," the very "risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude."

Notably, however, SCOTUS only granted Monday’s exemption in relation to the contraception mandate, essentially allowing for the over-extension of certain religious tenets into healthcare, but not others.

This ruling makes a joke of religious freedom, at the expense of female bodies and at odds with the very democratic ideals the Supreme Court is supposed to uphold. In the land of the free, freedom should never translate to freedom to oppress.

Contact Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here or follow her on Twitter.



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