The US Supreme Court today delivered its rulings in the two cases that ranked among the biggest legal “blockbusters” for this term: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn.
The Hobby Lobby decision involved a particular provision of the ObamaCare law that mandated US employers provide birth control free of charge to their employees. The Green family, which owns the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby, sued the government arguing that this section of the law violated their religious liberty under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which states that if the government is going to infringe on core religious expression it must have a “compelling government interest” and act only in the “least restrictive way.”
And while Hobby Lobby doesn’t oppose all contraceptives (their employee insurance plans cover most varieties), the company specifically abstained from covering certain medications that it believes induce abortions, such as Plan B.
On a 5-4 decision, with the four so-called conservative justices plus swing vote Anthony Kennedy, the Court agreed with the Green family and the other plaintiffs in the case that the contraception mandate went too far in burdening closely-held companies with threat of either violating the owners’ religious conscience or violating the law.
Unfortunately, the decision apparently leaves open the opportunity for the Obama administration to create a government program that directly distributes birth control at taxpayer expense.
This and other factors have prompted some Republicans, most recently Colorado Representative and US Senate candidate Cory Gardner, to float the idea of legalizing the sale of contraceptives over-the-counter so as to appease both factions in the debate.
The decision does not grant such religious exemptions to publicly-traded companies. It only applies to “closely-held” corporations like sole and joint proprietorships and nonprofits.
In Harris v. Quinn, an Illinois law that conscripted home health care workers into public sector sector unions, or at least forced them to pay union dues, because, the state argued, all medical providers compensated with Medicaid funds count as “public employees” and thus obligated to be represented exclusively in union collective bargaining agreements.
The court again split 5-4 in a decision which distinctively separated Medicaid reimbursement recipients from actual public state employees, arguing that private patient assistants are responsible solely to their customers, not to the state. In so doing the justices have invalidated about a dozen and a half other similar state laws around the US with similar inclusions of home health care workers.
And while the Court’s decision has liberated many thousands of PAs from compulsory union representation, many had wished, or feared, that the it would have gone farther and invalidated all mandated collective bargaining schemes as unconstitutional infringements on First Amendment-protected rights to free association and expression. However, the highest judicial body in the land may be gearing up for such a case in the coming term(s) and plenty of pro-Right-to-Work litigants are eager to test how far they can push the justices in that direction.