Hobby Lobby sings halleluiah

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Hobby Lobby can refuse to cover contraception, based upon the owners’ religious objections.  There are various ways to describe this decision:birth_control

  • As a victory for religious freedom.
  • As a strike against Obamacare
  • As a step that may lead nowhere.

Let’s give credence to the religious freedom argument.  Indeed, the government should not force a person – in this case a “corporate” person – to act against his religious beliefs.  This was an important element of the argument: whether Hobby Lobby as a corporation was entitled to protect its religious freedom.  So, this is an interesting development in itself.  Corporations can claim to be Catholic, Christian, or whatever else and therefore protect religion-based actions from government interference.

When we think of a person exercising his religious freedom, we don’t think of his actions affecting more than just himself.  For example, an employee might assert her right to wear clothes dictated by her religion.  In Hobby Lobby’s case, their religious freedom will have a direct impact on the health benefits for thousands of employees at its 561 stores.  It’s not just their expression of their religion.  It’s how they pay employees, or at least, to the extent that employee pay includes health benefits.

Justice Ginsberg points this out in her dissent, in which she describes the action as “denying legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

The strike against Obamacare argument hails this decision as the first of many that will ultimately lead to health reform being reversed.  This is the same U.S. Supreme Court, keep in mind, that two years ago ruled that the individual mandate was constitutional.  If we accept that we can be required to buy health insurance, it’s hard to call it a significant victory that we can fight back rules on what the plan covers.  And even that victory is only for closely held corporations.

One could argue that this is the start of a death by a thousand nicks.  We’ll have to see how many more nicks get thrown at it.

How many Hobby Lobby employees will leave their job for better health benefits?  I’m guessing very few.  Hobby Lobby raised its minimum wage for full-time employees to $14 an hour in 2013.  That’s nearly double the federal minimum wage, and significantly higher than state minimum wages.  Considering that birth control pills can cost as little as $10 a month – that’s total cost, not just the co-pay – I’m not seeing a stampede for the exits.  Sure, sterilization and other forms of birth control can cost a lot more.  When people have to pay the bill themselves, they probably will choose the less expensive options.

So, I’m landing somewhere between this-might-be-the-first-nick-of-hundreds and ho-hum.  Nonetheless, I’ll be watching closely to see what happens next.

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