On March 25, 2014, the Supreme Court heard two landmark cases, Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Sebelius vs. Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp, regarding religious freedom and women’s health. Both involve for-profit companies which maintain that, in accordance with their religious beliefs, they should not be obligated to provide birth control coverage to female employees. Currently, these companies are required to do so under the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby, a Christian-based craft store chain located in regions across the country and owned by founder David Green, is suing for their right to refuse coverage of emergency contraceptives to employees.
As the Supreme Court justices in Washington D.C. grappled with the issue during what USA Today described as a 90-minute oral argument, protesters assembled at Hobby Lobby locations across the country, in a collective effort to have their stance heard on a case that affects people across the country.
At noon this past Tuesday, members from the New York City National Organization for Women (NOW) arrived at the Hobby Lobby on Route 9, equipped with picket signs and a repertoire of chants. About fifteen women, young, old and in between, shouted in unison “Hey, Hobby Lobby / keep it in the craftroom / not in my bedroom!” as their adversaries approached the site of protest.
“There are a lot of things at stake with this specific case,” said NOW Program Director Brielle Nalence, 26. Earlier in the day, she recounted, someone drove by and asked her if any of the NOW protesters were employed at Hobby Lobby. “When we said no, she said, ‘I know what your agenda is. You like your birth control, that’s fine, but let us live our lives.’”
However, this case doesn’t just affect Hobby Lobby workers. “If the Supreme Court decides that employers do have a say in what kind of health care their employees can have, it will have a precedent. It will lead to other employers having the freedom to decide yes you can, or no you cannot, have birth control,” stated Nalence.
Of the 20 FDA-approved drugs that are included in the federal mandate, Hobby Lobby does not object to covering 16 of these medications. The remaining four that the company finds morally questionable are forms of contraception such as Plan B which prevent the fertilization of an egg but do not terminate an already existing pregnancy. Though employees would still be able to purchase these medications on their own, without a co-pay, the cost can be as high as $60 for each pill and can therefore be an luxury outside of some’s means.
Standing firm with Hobby Lobby in their insistence that the corporation should be exempt from providing this coverage, groups of counter-protesters gathered across the way. Holding signs stating “Thank you Hobby Lobby for real values” and “Stop abortion now,” they made it their belief clear: For them, the issue of birth control is tied inextricably to matters of religion.
Doc Kavoly came up from Tuxedo, NY to uphold this stance, insisting that the company should be able to act according to the values set forth by its religious affiliation. He said, “We had to stand with Hobby Lobby. They’re very heroic in leading our charge for religious freedom. We would certainly not want to impose our beliefs on anyone else, we would simply like our right to choose as we like.”
What such protesters failed to grasp, maintained NOW protesters, is that their call for insurance coverage of birth control does not imply a condemnation of religious freedom.
“I think what people don’t realize is that we’re standing for people’s religious liberty and we’re standing for people’s individual freedom. We’re standing for the right of millions of women to get the health care they deserve and the health care they need. We don’t see it as an ‘if/or’ issue,” argued Jean Bucaria, NOW Deputy Director, highlighting that religion and reproductive health are not issues that are inherently at odds with each other.
Nalence, on the other hand, sees it as an even more cut-and-dry matter. She said, “For corporations [like Hobby Lobby]—it’s not a church. Plain and simple. They don’t get those protections that a religious nonprofit would have.”
Currently, federal mandate allows religious-based non-profits such as schools and hospitals to be exempt from providing no-cost birth control to their employees. The outcome of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Sebelius vs. Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp will determine if corporations can also refrain from providing this coverage. Many argue that this would expand on the already growing concept of corporate personhood—the notion that businesses deserve the same rights as individual citizens and that those rights can be protected by the same laws.
A ruling for this case is expected in June of this year and it’s not clear what the outcome will be. The Supreme Court justices demonstrated their distrust of the Affordable Care Act last year when they nearly voted to abolish it—four voted against it and the decision came down to a swing justice. If they overturn the mandate requiring birth control coverage, other companies may follow Hobby Lobby’s lead and coverage for birth control could end up being severely limited.
Whatever the verdict, Bucaria maintained that NOW’s efforts to secure women’s reproductive rights will remain unflagging. “No matter what the Supreme Court does, there’s going to be a huge backlash and we’re going to fight to make sure that birth control is covered in our health insurance,” she said.
Access to birth control is not just a concern for women, but one that affects everyone, said Bucaria. “Women and men across the country need birth control. It’s not just about women. It’s about men and it’s about families.” Nonetheless, concerns of reproductive rights remains overwhelmingly a women’s issue. According to NOW, 99 percent of women will use contraceptives at some point in their lives. The issue also more strongly affects low-income women who would rely on insurance coverage in order to afford the contraceptives that wealthier people could pay out-of-pocket for.
She continued, “There are health reasons that we need access to it. They are necessary to control the course of our lives and our future,” emphasizing that birth control has implications beyond family planning.
Nalence echoed these sentiments, pointing to the importance this insurance coverage has for many of Hobby Lobby’s female employees. “We know that birth control is empowering for women. Being able to have control over the timing of bearing children, as well as using birth control to prevent ovarian cysts, severe menstrual cramps…birth control helps women live their lives.”
She concluded, “The costs of birth control can be upwards of $600 per year. If this amount is covered by a woman’s health insurance, that $600 could be spent on tuition, school books, food for a woman’s family, gas money to go to and from work, and essentially, put back into the economy.”