Today's Hobby Lobby Decision Is Inconceivable

I did not believe that the Supreme Court could decide that a private corporation had the right to deny its female employees' coverage for routine prescriptions based on its owners' private religious beliefs. I did not imagine that the owners of a craft store would set legal precedent based on their personal and erroneous beliefs that certain modern methods of contraception cause abortions -- when they do not. It was inconceivable -- pun intended -- to me that the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of five of its male justices, would place access to birth control coverage for thousands of women in jeopardy.

Let no one claim that today's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Burwell is a victory for religious freedom. Real religious freedom is the right each of us has to make our own moral decisions about our lives. As a religious leader and as a person of faith, I believe that all persons should be free to make personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community -- not their employers. Religious freedom is also the right to not have others beliefs forced upon us. How can religious freedom mean that an employer or a corporation can deny the women who work for them coverage for prescriptions that are used by the vast of women of childbearing age?

The Supreme Court has never before allowed the owners of a for-profit corporation to assert religious rights to deny their employees federally-mandated benefits. The decision effectively prioritizes the religious beliefs of the employer over the moral views of the employee. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, "The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would...deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage." The government should never privilege the teachings of one religion over another religion's moral views. As our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning states, "no single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on contraception, nor should government take sides on religious differences."

The fact that religious opposition to birth control has been singled out specifically -- even as the justices wrote that other beliefs about controversial medical services would not be similarly protected -- makes this decision a clear attack on women's sexual and reproductive rights. Although today's decision does not remove the birth control benefit for all, in the future, it might allow any employer to claim a religious belief to deny their women employees' contraceptive coverage or other important health protections. "The Court's ruling may serve as a slippery slope that will go even further down a road that dramatically transforms religious liberty from a fundamental value protecting genuine religious beliefs to a loophole, which could be used as an unfair advantages in the corporate world and to dictate women's health choices, discriminate, and evade federal protections," say Carmel Martin and Joshua Field at The Center for American Progress.

Mainstream Jewish and Protestant religious leaders have been speaking out for contraception for more than eighty years, including, most recently, the requirement for contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act. The Religious Institute was part of a brief filed against Hobby Lobby on behalf of 29 religious organizations, coordinated by Americans United For Separation of Church and State. In March 2014, we released a statement on behalf of 47 nationally recognized religious leaders supporting universal access to contraception and affirming that equal access to contraceptives through insurance coverage is a moral good.

These leaders also said:

Including contraceptives as a covered service does not require anyone to use it; excluding coverage for those who choose to plan and space their families with modern methods of birth control will effectively translate into coercive childbearing for many.

The fact is that modern methods of contraception save lives. It is precisely because life is sacred that religious leaders believe that every woman must be able to plan her pregnancies intentionally without governmental interference -- or without her employer deciding which contraceptive method if any should be covered by her insurance.

We fear and pray for the lives and health of women, especially poor women in the United States who do not have insurance to pay for prescription birth control methods. We call on Congress to rectify today's decision by mandating that private employers provide insurance coverage for the full range of safe and effective contraceptive methods. We call on people of faith to stand with us for the true meaning of religious freedom.