WASHINGTON -- On Monday, the Supreme Court dealt a significant blow to the progressive movement, handing down decisions in two high-profile cases regarding birth control and labor unions.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court ruled 5-4 that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage for their employees.
In its 5-4 ruling in Harris v. Quinn, the court gave certain workers the ability to opt out of paying dues to public-sector unions, delivering a setback to the organized labor movement.
Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion in each case.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the court ruled that the Obama administration had failed to show that the contraception mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act is the "least restrictive means of advancing its interest" in providing birth control at no cost to women.
Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned craft supply chain store, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Store, a Pennsylvania wood manufacturer owned by a family of Mennonites, had challenged the contraception mandate on the grounds that it violates their religious freedom by requiring them to pay for methods of contraception they find morally objectionable. The owners of those companies believe some forms of birth control -- emergency contraception and intrauterine devices -- are forms of abortion because they could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
The Affordable Care Act contains a provision requiring most employers to cover the full range of contraception in their health care plans at no cost to their female employees. The Obama administration had granted an exemption for churches and accommodations for religious hospitals, schools and nonprofits, but for-profit companies were required to comply with the coverage rule or pay fines.
But the court ruled that since the exemption already existed for religious institutions, there was no good reason for the government to prevent for-profit corporations owned or controlled by people with religious beliefs from claiming the exemption as well.
"Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law," Alito wrote, adding that by requiring religious corporations to cover contraception, "the HHS mandate demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs."
The opinion was written narrowly so as only to apply to the contraception mandate, not to religious employers who object to other medical services, like blood transfusions or vaccines. But the four liberal justices argued in their dissent that the ruling will have far-reaching implications, allowing commercial enterprises to "opt out of any law" to which they morally object.
In Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled that certain government-funded employees -- in this case, home care workers paid through Medicaid -- cannot be required to pay fees to the public-sector unions that bargain on their behalf. Requiring such mandatory fees would violate the workers' First Amendment rights, the majority said.
The ruling was not the worst-case scenario that unions had feared. But it will have a financial impact on major unions that have organized Medicaid-funded home care workers and other workers who aren't "full-fledged public employees" in the majority's eyes.
Such workers, the court ruled, cannot be compelled to pay so-called "agency fees." Since unions have to represent all the employees in a particular bargaining unit, they commonly seek requirements in their contracts that all workers, whether union members or not, pay agency fees to help cover the administrative costs of bargaining. This avoids what unions commonly refer to as freeloading by non-union employees.
Demanding an agency fee of the Illinois home care workers who sued the state in Harris v. Quinn would run afoul of the First Amendment, Alito wrote.
"If we accepted Illinois' argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support," Alito wrote, referring to the union.
And yet the majority did not issue a sweeping decision that had the potential to devastate organized labor at large. Anti-union interests, including the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represented the Harris plaintiffs, had hoped that the court would apply its decision on agency fees to all public-sector workers in the U.S., essentially overturning an earlier Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
With far-reaching implications for an already embattled labor movement, such a ruling would have instituted a kind of right-to-work principle on the public sector, giving workers throughout the country the ability to opt out of supporting the union.