A big step back

In allowing some employers to ignore the law that requires insurance coverage for contraception, the Supreme Court on Monday endowed corporations with new rights and, at the same time, discounted the importance of healthcare in the lives of individual Americans.

The court’s narrow 5-4 decision lets certain “closely held” corporations like Hobby Lobby off the hook regarding a hotly contested provision of the Affordable Care Act. Companies like family businesses, in which there is no essential difference between the business and its owners, don’t have to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for contraception, the court said.

The harmful impact of this ruling will fall primarily on women, who have often been shortchanged on insurance coverage in a variety of ways.

First, it will deny them equal access to healthcare coverage. How many, no one can say for certain, but surely the number will grow as other businesses seek to benefit from the ruling. One of the supporting briefs for denying any exclusion for contraceptives argued that many women cannot afford the most effective means of birth control and that the law as written reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions.

Second, it opens the door for challenges by other employers seeking either the same exclusion on religious grounds, or those seeking to broaden the grounds for exclusion. And, of course, it will make healthcare coverage more expensive for women who will now have to buy contraception coverage on their own.

The majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito was, as dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, breathtaking in scope. Justice Alito cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which sets a high bar for having the government interfere with a person’s exercise of religion. But this is the first time the court has recognized a company raising a legal claim in this area, thus giving corporations expanded rights to claim religious exemptions.

As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, some will argue that the ruling allows corporations to opt out of any law that they deem incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

To boot, Justice Alito’s suggested remedy may not be much help. He pointed to an arrangement under which certain nonprofit religious organizations — churches and religious orders, for example — are allowed to claim exemptions from contraceptive coverage. The insurance company then becomes responsible for paying claims for this type of coverage.

The problem with the solution is that it is being challenged in court by many of those same churches and organizations. Lawyers for a group of nuns argued that the women objected “because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf.” The court’s latest ruling puts it on a slippery slope to agree to such claims.

When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964 — 50 years ago this week — it was challenged by companies and individuals seeking exceptions, for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Court justices of that era consistently held that the right to rent a hotel room or be served a meal in a restaurant should not be restricted in any way.

Unfortunately, the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the majority on Monday, is not made of such stern stuff. It has now allowed a big exception to the right of equal access to healthcare, diminishing the importance of that right and the vital role it plays in the lives and well-being of individuals and families.