Another View: Hobby Lobby case is about government coercion, not women’s rights

Published: Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am

The Bee missed key points about religious freedom rights in its editorial Tuesday, “ Corporations try to impose beliefs on birth control.”

In a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week, the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby and cabinetmaker Conestoga Wood Specialties argued that a federal mandate under the Affordable Care Act forcing it to provide insurance coverage for contraceptive services including abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization that they oppose on religious grounds, or pay heavy fines, violates their constitutional right to free exercise of religion and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Should women “get to decide what kind of birth control they can access,” the editorial asks, or “is that the purview of employers?”

But nothing in this case curtails a woman’s birth control access or health choices. Birth control is widely available, inexpensive and covered by most insurance plans.

The question is whether business owners who object to certain contraceptive drugs and devices on religious grounds can be forced to provide them for free – not forbid women from obtaining them on their own.

Hobby Lobby itself provides multiple birth control options in its insurance plan. It objects only to four of the 20 methods the mandate forces it to cover, or pay $475 million a year in fines.

Under the RFRA, government cannot impose a “substantial burden” on religious freedom without a “compelling” interest and in the least restrictive way.

The government has granted exemptions to many other employers, including religious nonprofits and for grandfathered plans, yet it refuses to accommodate the religious convictions of these family-owned businesses.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy noted during the oral arguments, the mandate must not be that important, or compelling, if many organizations have already been exempted.

He also noted that under the government’s argument, for-profit corporations could be forced to pay for abortions, with no recourse to the courts, a point the government’s attorney conceded.

The Bee editorial conjectures that exempting for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby would open “a Pandora’s box of exemptions,” citing the hypothetical refusal to cover blood transfusions or vaccinations.

But any such move would not pass the “compelling government interest” test – government’s legitimate interest in protecting public health and preventing the spread of disease.

“The question for the court is whether the religious beliefs of business owners of for-profit corporations should trump the rights of their employees,” the editorial states.

The question is, rather, whether government coercion can trump the religious freedom rights of Americans.

Margaret A. Bengs is a former political speechwriter who can be reached at

Read more articles by Margaret A. Bengs

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