The Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby ruling issued by the Supreme Court on Tuesday is quite possibly the biggest unintentional precedent setting Pandora’s Box of confusion ever issued by the Roberts Court, which says a lot coming from the same court that brought you Citizens United and McCutcheon vs FEC. Essentially, Hobby Lobby was suing the Department of Health and Human Services over requirements in the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) that require health insurance to be purchased for all full time workers at firms with over 50 employees, including birth control. Hobby Lobby claims that purchasing insurance policies that cover birth control and the Morning-After pill violates their pro-life, Christian beliefs, and that they should be exempted from having to pay for those services and have their employees make copays or pay out of pocket for those products or services.
Let’s put aside some of the staggeringly obvious flaws in Hobby Lobby’s logic for a moment, like the fact that Hobby Lobby’s employee 401(k) fund is invested in multiple pharmaceutical companies that produce various types of the pills they so vociferously object to. Or the fact that they made no opposition to continuing to pay for Viagra and Cialis in male employees’ health plans. Because apparently God gets really upset about women removing the eggs He gave them, but isn’t nearly as bothered by men fixing their old, decrepit penises after God has decided they shouldn’t be able to get hard-ons anymore. Let’s instead try to comprehend the magnitude of the precedent they’ve created.
While Alito, who penned the majority opinion, was clear to establish in the ruling that this applies only to the birth control requirement in Obamacare and no other medical treatments would be affected, the precedent they’ve set is quite clear: there is now a constitutional basis for an individual or a group to individually nullify law on the grounds of sincerely held religious beliefs. Ironically, earlier this year, states like Georgia and Arizona introduced bills aimed at ‘enabling religious freedom’, which were heavily criticized as enabling rampant discrimination of LGBT people and other groups, and quickly tucked under the rug. It seems they must have seen the writing on the wall in the Hobby Lobby case, because they’ve gotten exactly what they wanted.
What exactly would the religious nullification of law look like? The obvious extreme examples that come to mind — being obligated to stone adulterers to death, for instance, or being allowed to own slaves, would obviously violate other constitutional and statutory laws and could never be reasonably justified, even under the ruling. However, let’s say a man was beating his wife who he had discovered to be committing infidelity, and she called the police. The responding officer, in speaking to the husband, discovers that he intends to stone her to death in accordance with biblical law. Now let’s assume the officer is equally pious on this issue. Obviously the husband has committed a litany of violent crimes and will eventually be apprehended and convicted, and any attempts to use Hobby Lobby as precedent will be overruled. But what about the cop; can he now legally refuse to intervene in stopping what is in fact a crime because he sympathizes with the aggressor?
There are of course much more practical examples, especially regarding medicine. Parents can already choose not to vaccinate their children (to destructive results as epidemics of Measles, Mumps and Rubella would suggest), but can employers now restrict their employees from accessing vaccines because of ‘sincerely held beliefs’? Can Jehovah’s Witnesses block access to their employees’ blood transfusions? Or can Scientologists restrict access to psychiatric drugs for people with schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder? All of these questions are as of yet unanswered, but like Hobby Lobby did, will they will shoot first and ask questions later so to speak; they’ll simply act in accordance with their ‘religious laws’, which as noted earlier, they’re pretty willing to negotiate with when it benefits them in some tangible way, and hope they win in court.
At its root, this really boils down to how decrepit and self-defeating the American healthcare system is, even in the wake of the ACA. If we had a single payer healthcare system, we wouldn’t depend on employers to provide their employees with healthcare and be vulnerable to their delicate sensibilities concerning what violates their beliefs. But while we’re on the subject of nullifying laws on the basis of ‘sincerely held beliefs’, I’d like to reassert my sincerely held belief that the US war machine sows death and destruction in every place it touches and that I am in gross violation of my First Amendment rights by funding it. So paying any Federal taxes (half of which goes to defense) is not something I’m going do anymore. As Jon Stewart once said in an epic takedown of Rush Limbaugh, “To the people who are upset about their hard-earned tax money going to things they don’t like: welcome to the fucking club. Reimburse me for the Iraq war and oil subsidies, and diaphragms are on me!”