To what extent should an employer’s religious beliefs affect the rights of its employees? You’re quite correct – they shouldn’t. Once you pass from the private sphere into the public sphere – the marketplace, for example – employees are protected from the whims of employers by the law.
This is fairly straightforward stuff, yet amazingly this simple premise is set to be challenged in the US, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases in which employers will argue that their private religious affiliations prevent them from offering female employees birth control provisions.
Let me run that by you again – the seemingly most prosperous, scientifically forward and politically advanced (the American revolution is after all still going) nation in the world is set to debate whether employers can legally refuse to provide female birth control as part of their healthcare package.
Unsurprisingly, as with everything in contemporary US politics, this is yet another proxy war over the Affordable Care Act, with Obama’s landmark legislation being tested, pushed, pulled, bitten, scratched and kicked at every turn by a Republican Party that has placed its entire stack of chips (plus its watch, its car, the house and its wife) on Obamacare’s repeal.
Myriad companies have attempted to sue the government over a rule in the Act that states for-profit companies (excluding Churches and non-profits) should provide birth control in their health insurance plans. We’re not talking about abortion here – we’re talking about IUDs and the morning after pill.
Yet that has been enough for two companies, aided by a febrile atmosphere in which the political right are determined to scupper the ACA backed by a religious right determined to see birth control reduced to prayers and a pair of crossed fingers, to have their grievance heard by the highest court in the land.
The companies in question are a Christian-owned craft supply chain called Hobby Lobby and a furniture company owned by a family of Mennonites. Both argue that they morally object to being made to pay for birth control provisions because they believe it is akin to abortion.
Yet even if you think religion is an important matter – it is soaked into American political culture like a 200-year-old bloodstain – the problems of letting employers decide on which laws they will follow and which they won’t because of moral objections are obvious. What if an employer believes cancer treatment is morally wrong? What if they believe HIV is a curse sent by God and those infected deserve his wrath? Should the employees be forced to pay for these prohibitively expensive treatments on their own?
What if a restaurant owner objects to serving black people on moral grounds? Should they be allowed to circumvent the law based on whimsy? The Supreme Court is due to hear the cases early next year, with a decision likely next summer. Fortunately, the Obama administration has proved itself resolute on matters of the Affordable Care Act, despite the main exchange website offering all the technical wherewithal of a ZX81.
“The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” read a White House statement on Tuesday. We wait to see if the Supreme Court agrees.