An Assault Upon the Very Notion of Secular Law

Companies shouldn't be able to invoke religion to exempt itself from a law it doesn’t like.

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Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver on May 22, 2013.

DENVER – The Hobby Lobby case, which the Supreme Court agreed last month to hear, shouldn't only scare you if you're a woman concerned about reproductive rights. It should scare you if you're an American concerned about civil rights and the very principle of secular law. The Hobby Lobby case threatens to extend corporate personhood to allowing companies to force employers' religious beliefs onto individual employees, deny them health care, and opt out of laws they don't like.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases – Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius – challenging the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employer-provided health plans included birth control coverage. Previous court rulings have been all over the map, including one in Hobby Lobby's favor from the shorthanded 10th Circuit here in Denver.

The companies object to certain forms of birth control because the "religious beliefs" of their owners forbid them from covering contraceptives that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg and thus in their minds are "abortifacients."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Unfortunately for their women employees, the companies' "science" is in line with those who think people and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. According to a friend of the court brief filed in the Hobby Lobby case by Physicians for Reproductive Health, the companies "fail to cite any scientific authority for their assertions that any FDA-approved contraceptives are abortifacients ... there is no scientific evidence that emergency contraceptives available in the United States and approved by the FDA effect an existing pregnancy. None, therefore are properly classified as abortifacients."

Pregnancy itself is a complicated concept, as is the science of contraception. According to Jessica Arons of the Reproductive Health Technology Project, "Contrary to popular belief, pregnancy does not occur in a 'moment' of conception within hours of intercourse, but rather over a span of several days. An embryo can be present in a woman's body for up to 9 days before she becomes pregnant." Approximately 50 percent of fertilized eggs never implant, so Mother Nature is a pretty thorough abortionist by Hobby Lobby's definition.

Also worth noting: the employer birth control coverage mandate didn't come from the Obama administration. Most of it has been law well over a decade. According to Mother Jones:

In December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies that provided prescription drugs to their employees but didn't provide birth control were in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. That opinion, which the George W. Bush administration did nothing to alter or withdraw when it took office the next month, is still in effect today.

The difference now is that contraceptive coverage falls under the umbrella of the Affordable Care Act, and is covered with no or little out of pocket costs.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood aren't individuals or churches. They are corporations. Nobody is stopping them from practicing their religion or forcing them to use the pill or get an IUD. But their religious beliefs do not entitle them to make those decisions for their employees – their beliefs stop at their employees' doctors' offices. None of these personal, private health care decisions by workers are any of Hobby Lobby's damn business.

What if these companies decided they didn't want to cover AIDS drugs? Or plans that included blood transfusions? Or that their religion forbade them hiring different races or abiding by wage and hour guidelines? Where does it stop?

This is why these two cases are so dangerous: if a company can invoke religion to exempt itself from a law it doesn't like, it destroys the very notion of secular law. And it turns employees into chattel whose personal, private health care decisions are owned by their employer.