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Hobby Lobby Case: A Constitutional Pandora's Box

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HOBBY LOBBY
ASSOCIATED PRESS

When we set out to reform health care, one of our major priorities was ending the practice of charging women more than men for the same insurance. The Affordable Care Act addresses this in a number of ways, including a ban on gender discrimination in health programs and requiring health insurance plans to cover critical women's health services including mammograms, maternity care, and oral contraception at no extra cost.

Since the law's passage, however, some conservatives have become fixated on undermining the Affordable Care Act, and the law's contraceptive requirement has become one of the flashpoints. The assault has been relentless -- labeling supporters of the contraceptive requirement "sluts," pushing the false narrative that it's unfair for American men to have to purchase private health insurance that covers birth control (the same way American women currently obtain private insurance that covers erectile dysfunction medication and vasectomies), and now, taking the fight to the courts on the grounds of a religious liberty challenge.

Today, March 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in the cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, where for-profit corporations are challenging the law's requirement that private insurance now cover birth control along with other preventive health services. These companies claim that requiring them to offer such a health care plan violates the company's religious beliefs. The fact that Hobby Lobby used to offer policies that covered birth control before the passage of the Affordable Care Act is conspicuously absent from most of the press coverage.

For proponents, winning these cases would kill two major birds with one stone. It would accomplish a significant policy goal -- limiting women's access to contraception and further chipping away at reproductive health rights -- as well as a significant political goal: inflicting damage to the Affordable Care Act and the president who signed it into law.

But while the longstanding assault on women's health care rights and the relatively new assault on the Affordable Care Act may have been the genesis for these challenges, the underlying constitutional issues -- legalizing discrimination under the guise of "religious freedom" and giving corporations the same religious rights as individual persons -- are the things truly at stake and should provide the justices with more than enough justification for rejecting these misguided lawsuits.

Federal law states that the government cannot place a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. The contraception requirement does not compel any employer to use any contraceptive methods, nor does it require them to adhere to, affirm, or abandon any particular belief. It merely requires for-profit employers to provide comprehensive health coverage so that their employees may then make their own decisions about whether or not to use contraception, according to their own individualized health and wellness needs.

By arguing the contrary, these business owners are using religious freedom to claim control over personal decisions of their employees' private lives. This argument falls apart if the political baggage associated with women's health is removed. If an employer refused on religious grounds to offer health insurance policies that covered children's vaccines or blood transfusions, for example, the vast majority of us would agree that a boss has no right to interfere in the basic, personal medical decisions of employees.

Furthermore, the lawsuits are based on the premise that for-profit corporate owners' religious beliefs, and the ability to freely exercise those beliefs, extend to the corporation they own. While the Supreme Court has at times given corporations certain rights normally enjoyed by persons -- the right to enter into a contract, the right to bring a lawsuit, and, infamously, the right to free speech under Citizens United -- corporations are not people. Corporations cannot vote. They cannot get married. They cannot run for office. For the purposes of this argument, they cannot pray.

The combination of extending a business owner's religious beliefs to a for-profit company and then using those corporate rights to discriminate against employees and customers who do not adhere to that religion could have implications far beyond the Affordable Care Act. Such a decision could give business owners a justification to impose their religion on their employees, skirt workplace protections and ignore anti-discrimination measures. Such a fundamental change to the principle of religious freedom would upend our basic sense of equality and fairness in the workplace and would be a constant threat to our personal rights and freedoms.

As co-Chairs of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, we believe that the Court should rule in a way that respects the long-standing constitutional principle that health care choices should be made between a woman and her doctor and should not be subject to approval by politicians, bosses, religious leaders, or anyone else. As Americans, we urge the Court not to open a constitutional Pandora's Box by legalizing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom and furthering the dubious cause of corporate personhood.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) serve as co-Chairs of the Pro-Choice Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.