Did the Supreme Court uphold religious freedom? Were they discriminatory? Affected local businesses speak out on Hobby Lobby contraception ruling

Last modified: Thursday, July 03, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. was applauded by religious groups but left some legal scholars and business owners irate over its implications.

One area business owner said he believes the decision is overreaching and just plain wrong, while the local Catholic diocese said it bodes well for religious institutions.

Dave Ratner, owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet Food City and a board member of the National Retail Federation, said he finds the ruling “really discriminatory.”

“It’s not fair,” Ratner said. “It doesn’t matter what my religious beliefs are, I don’t have the right to tell you what to do.”

Ratner — with stores in Northampton, Hadley, Agawam, Springfield and Ludlow — said the insurance he offers his 150 full and part-time employees provides contraceptive health services.

Ratner said he wouldn’t remove that portion of the coverage, “not in a million years.”

“I’ll offer it to everybody,” he said. “And, if they don’t want to use it, don’t use it.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Diocese of Springfield welcomes the decision, which spokesman Mark Dupont said clarifies whether it can implement its own health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act, including its practice of opting out of contraception coverage. He said the diocese provides insurance to its employees but does not cover contraceptive services.

Dupont said Monday’s ruling applies to for-profit companies, but said he hopes it will be applied equally to employees of nonprofit religious institutions like churches and religiously affiliated hospitals.

The 5-4 decision, in short, said “closely held,” for-profit companies can, under certain conditions, decline to provide health-care coverage for services like contraception if such services violate “sincere Christian beliefs.”

Marlene Fried, director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, said the decision appears to most negatively affect young, poor women, whom she termed “the most marginalized people in society.”

She also said there may be many more court challenges ahead as the implications of the ruling are examined, but fears those young, poor women will bear the burden of that uncertainty.

“They’re the canaries in these mines,” she said.

Fried also said the larger problem the decision illustrates is when lawmakers and business people rather than doctors make health care decisions.

“It’s another case of providing an obstacle to being able to access the full range of reproductive health care,” Fried said.

Fried said the ruling raises concerns that it might provide a means for particular companies to actively discriminate against women, homosexuals or other social groups using religious grounds as an excuse to do so.

“Certainly religious freedom can’t mean that,” she said.

Vermont Law School professor Jennifer Taub of Northampton said the decision is a complicated one that is not easy to analyze because it doesn’t clearly define what a closely held corporation is.

“This case raises more questions than it answers,” Taub said Tuesday. “It’s hard to fully know at the moment the scope, implication and the reach of this case.”

Taub said it’s unclear from the decision how many corporations are affected by it or how many areas of law beyond health coverage could be impacted.

She said the Internal Revenue Service has one definition of what a closely held corporation is, and each of the 50 states could have its own different definition.

Taub said the decision could be applied to businesses beyond family-owned companies like Hobby Lobby to publicly traded ones.

“The court doesn’t exclude this as a possibility,” Taub said.

Taub said, noting the dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that “closely held” is not synonymous with “small.”

In a footnote in her dissent, Ginsburg noted that candy giant Mars Inc. is considered a closely held company, despite having 72,000 employees and revenue of $33 billion.

Taub said the decision leaves open the possibility that other companies could decline to cover procedures like blood transfusions or vaccinations to their employees based on a religious objection.

“Where will this end?” she said.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, took to Twitter Monday to express his disappointment with the ruling.

He said the ruling “means that employers can now make vital health choices for their female employees, and can use any moral objection they have to deny women access to basic medical treatments and prescriptions.”

“I will continue to work with my colleagues and the administration to see how we can be a better partner to Massachusetts women in light of the court’s reckless decisions,” Rosenberg wrote.

In a statement, the Sisters of Providence Health System — which includes Mercy Medical Center in Springfield — said it, too, is exempt from the requirement from providing contraceptive coverage due to its status as a faith-based, not-for-profit organization.

“Our hope is the decision carries over to nonprofits,” said Timothy Biggins, chairman of the diocese’s Pro-Life Commission.

Biggins said the diocese’s objection to contraceptive care is that it interrupts the natural procreative process.

“That’s always been the concern from a pro-life point of view,” Biggins said. “It’s immoral because it interferes with procreation.”

Dupont said he doesn’t anticipate much resistance from diocese employees if it continues to deny contraceptive coverage, noting that people who come to work for the Catholic Church in some capacity expect there will be concessions, including regarding health care coverage, that must be made on religious grounds.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.