With the Supreme Court ruling 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby on Monday, finding that for-profit employers with religious objections can opt out of providing contraception coverage under Obamacare, our debate topic is set: did the Supreme Court get it right? Or wrong?
The Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is problematic, but given the court’s current composition, and its track record on corporate issues, it was not unexpected. As in most cases, the justices aren’t idiots (even the ones I usually disagree with), so the majority decision isn’t a gross miscarriage of justice or anything that drastic. Unfortunately, neither is it free from serious issues.
It’s not at all unreasonable to say that employers who offer a benefit to their employees should be able to tailor those benefits in accordance with their moral or religious beliefs. It’s important for any free society, and for ours in particular, to protect space for the exercise of religious freedom. There has been, and there should be, debate about whether employee benefits programs should be included in that space, since including them effectively transfers some of the costs of an employer’s beliefs to their employees. In the end, though, reasonable people on both sides of the debate have made reasonable points, and now we know which side has won the day on this issue.
The problem is that the Supreme Court’s decision is, at a basic level, logically inconsistent. It does little to protect freedom (religious, sexual, or otherwise), because it specifies that it does not extend to other requirements placed on employers. If an employer has a moral objection to contraception, they’re in luck. If they have a moral objection to vaccinations or blood transfusions, too bad. There may be some political sense in this — the Supreme Court usually tries to rule as narrowly as possible — but it is itself a moral judgment that religious concerns about sexuality are more important than religious concerns about other kinds of health-related issues. If we’re going to allow businesses to make some moral judgments but not others, this seems like a weird place to draw the line. It also seems to bely a bit of misogyny since access to contraception tends to affect women more than men. Basically, I don’t feel super comfortable with the Supreme Court making value judgments about which religious beliefs are important enough to exempt.
The wider problem is that this decision highlights the idiocy of having most of our nation’s healthcare tied to employer-employee relationships. We’d be better off with a system more like the individual mandate portion of the ACA for everyone, accompanied by a robust system for providing subsidies to people who can’t afford to purchase insurance on their own. This would negate any worries about whether an employer’s religious beliefs about healthcare match their employees’, and it would mean that we could do away with the reams of regulations that employers have to comply with in this arena. Employers could still offer to subsidize their employees plans if they want to offer that benefit for competitive reasons, but no longer would most people need to rely on an employer for healthcare or bear the costs of an employer’s religious beliefs.