Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court opened a minefield with its Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling.
She may have been understating the case.
The Hobby Lobby case, in short, revolves around a particular segment of the Affordable Care Act in which for-private businesses are required to offer health insurance that includes some contraceptives to female employees. Some of those contraceptives ran afoul of the religious beliefs of the Hobby Lobby owners, who opposed offering the benefits on those grounds.
Make no mistake, this ruling could set a dangerous precedent going forward.
This particular case was not about religious liberty, it wasn’t about abortion and reproductive rights, it wasn’t even about ObamaCare or the constitutional limitations on a president. It was simply about workplace fairness, and it appears that concept took a beating on Monday.
The five-justice majority attempted to render a narrow ruling which only applies to what it calls “closely held” companies.
Hobby Lobby is an Oklahoma-based chain retail arts and crafts stores, with 13,000 employees. It is owned by a trust managed by the Green family, which describes itself as devoutly Christian. That family has said that if the company were required to comply with this clause of the Affordable Care Act, the family would be forced to violate its religious beliefs.
America was built on a number of principles that were largely new to the world at the time of the nation’s founding, and one of those principles is religious freedom. While those on the right largely — and correctly — argue that this gives people the right to worship how they choose, and to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs, they also forget this philosophy also allows people to live free of religion if they so choose, to be able to work and take part in society free of having someone else’s religious beliefs foisted upon them.
In modern society, that means a person can apply for and hold a job without worrying if their employer will treat them differently than others based on whether that person agrees with the employer’s religious belief.
We are not talking about someone applying for a job at a church, religious-affiliatted school or hospital, or a religious-affiliated non-profit. If someone is applying for a position with such an organization, we believe it would be reasonable, and constitutional, for such an applicant to expect their religious beliefs and practices to come into play.
But that is not what Monday’s ruling was about. Again, Hobby Lobby is a for profit company, not unlike WalMart or Target in many ways. In such a workplace, employees shouldn’t expect the owners’ religious beliefs to determine what benefits employees can receive, how they are paid, or even if they are allowed to work there.
It’s not that far down the proverbial slippery slope to see a Muslim-owned company refusing to hire Christians, or a Christian-owned company requiring its workers to participate in religious activities such as prayer or Bible study.
Individuals in America can worship how they see fit in their homes and in their churches, can live their lives according to whatever principles they believe are in accordance with their religious beliefs. But the workplace should be neutral, and employees should be treated the same with regards to labor and benefit laws whether they work at Hobby Lobby, WalMart, or a locally owned store.
Monday’s ruling may very well be the first step toward ending that practice in America. At the very least, it will keep the court system tied up for years with employers trying to test the boundaries of how much they can push upon their employees — or how much they can take away — based on their individual religious beliefs.