Should corporations have the right to get out of obeying federal law and refuse services and deny health care coverage to some people because of the corporate owners' religious beliefs? That's the question the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing this month– and the answer could affect millions of Americans' everyday lives.
Two companies – one a chain of crafts stores in 47 states, and the other a woodworking manufacturer with factories in three states– argue that they shouldn't have to follow the federal law that requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control. The corporate owners claim a religious objection to providing some birth control to their employees, in part because the owners allege that those forms of birth control are abortion, an allegation that major medical institutions reject.
As a matter of science and medicine, the corporations are on worse-than-shaky ground. In fact, birth control prevents pregnancy from happening in the first place, and nearly 60% of women who use the birth control pill also use it for other medical reasons, like managing migraines and acne.
As a matter of law, the corporations are asking the Court to dramatically upend the balance we've struck for generations to protect everyone's rights and liberties. In fact, this case would mark the first time in history that corporations would be given the right to exercise religion like people or churches do.
The potential consequences of this case are far-reaching and deeply troubling. If the corporations win at the Supreme Court, they will be able to pick and choose which laws to obey – they will be able to pick and choose which health care services the insurance they provide to their employees covers, and maybe even which customers to turn away.
Imagine a world where a woman has to bring a doctor's note to her boss to explain that she needs birth control in order to manage endometriosis (a condition which can lead to infertility if left untreated) because her boss is legally empowered to deny insurance coverage if she's using birth control to avoid getting pregnant.
Imagine a world where a man with HIV is not hired to work in a chain restaurant because the corporation's owner has made a judgment about how he contracted the virus.
Imagine a world where a bank can refuse to approve a mortgage for a single mother – or a same-sex couple, even in one of the 17 states that allows them to marry – because they don't fit what the bank's corporate owner sees as a morally acceptable household.
Imagine a word where adoption agencies can turn away a lesbian prospective parent because the owner of the agency disapproves of the woman's "lifestyle" despite state and local laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
When the Arizona State Legislature passed a bill to allow companies to refuse services based on moral objections -- code for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, single mothers, and female-headed households -- (which was vetoed, ultimately), the country got a small peek at what this extreme agenda looks like. And people didn't like what they saw.
Arizona was just the tip of the iceberg. Similar legislation has been introduced in other states.
The extreme and unprecedented agenda pressed by those who support these laws and the for-profit corporations at the Supreme Court could undo a lot of progress we've made as a country, literally since our founding. From the very beginning, the free exercise of religion has been a core American value. It means that the government can't force a church to violate its beliefs and also can't force a church's beliefs on anyone else. It means both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Religious liberty must always be a shield from discrimination. The cases before the Supreme Court would turn it into a sword to discriminate against others. That's a dangerous line to cross.