New York Times columnist Bill Keller had a good column today that discussed the business Hobby Lobby, which is trying to weasel its way out of providing birth control in its company health plan for employees under the specious claim of religious liberty. According to Keller:
This has put Hobby Lobby at the leading edge of a legal battle that poses the intriguing question: Can a corporation have a conscience? And if so, is it protected by the First Amendment.
The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, requires that companies with more than 50 full-time employees offer health insurance, including coverage for birth control. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempt. The Obama administration, in an unrequited search for compromise, has also proposed to excuse nonprofit organizations such as hospitals and universities if they are affiliated with religions that preach the evil of contraception. You might ask why a clerk at Notre Dame or an orderly at a Catholic hospital should be denied the same birth control coverage provided to employees of secular institutions. You might ask why institutions that insist they are like everyone else when it comes to applying for federal grants get away with being special when it comes to federal health law.
When I read this, it occurred to me that in all of these frivolous lawsuits, the so-called defenders of “religious liberty” only seem to care about the consciences of business owners, and have little interest in defending the consciences of employees (for the exception of defending the “right” of pharmacists to get between patients and their doctors) If the lowly workers don’t share their boss’ conservative views on birth control — like most Catholics and protestants in America — then too damn bad. Their strongly held beliefs don’t count for squat and they should be compelled to live by the boss’ rigid moral dictates.
So, in essence, this is very much a classic labor fight, with America’s far right supporting their beloved business class and trying to erode worker’s rights — including access to healthcare that conforms to their consciences. Such coercion by private employers, however, is legally suspect, morally dubious, and would lead to chaos in America, with religious entities and big bosses creating a class of elites, who have enormous power and don’t have to play by the same rules as the underclass.
“If an employer can craft a benefits system around his religious beliefs, that’s a slippery slope,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a critic of religious exemptions. “Can you deny treatment of AIDS victims because your religion disapproves of homosexuals? What if your for-profit employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, who doesn’t believe in blood transfusions?”
University of Virginia law professor, Douglas Laycock, who usually sides with proponents of broader religious liberty, says that those pushing for these broad religious exemptions for private employers might be making a strategic mistake:
“Interfering with someone else’s sex life is a pretty unpopular thing to do,” he said. “These disputes are putting the conservative churches on the losing side of the sexual revolution. I think they are taking a risk of turning large chunks of the population against the idea of religious exemptions altogether.”
I couldn’t agree more. This bogus claim of religious liberty and the desire to twist the law so fundamentalist employers have enormous coercive power over the consciences of employees must not stand. Private employers can pray to the Lord any time they wish, but they have no right in a free country to lord over the lives of their staff.