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Not a Good Day to Be a Woman or a Public Employee

Let’s celebrate our freedom to be serfs!

So the Roberts Court with a divided majority just decided that corporations are able to exercise freedom of speech by spending corporate money on political campaigns, they are now able to exercise their freedom of religion by denying benefits to employees who disagree with the bosses religious beliefs. It’s a good time to be an abstract legal concept called a corporation. A woman, not so much:

For many years, the Supreme Court struck a careful balance between protecting religious liberty and maintaining the rule of law in a pluralistic society. Religious people enjoy a robust right to practice their own faith and to act according to the dictates of their own conscience, but they could not wield religious liberty claims as a sword to cut away the legal rights of others. This was especially true in the business context. As the Supreme Court held in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”

With Monday’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, however, this careful balance has been upended. Employers who object to birth control on religious grounds may now refuse to comply with federal rules requiring them to include contraceptive care in their health plans. The rights of the employer now trump the rights of the employee.

My favorite parts of this opinion are all the disclaimers and caveats about how it doesn’t apply here and doesn’t apply there and don’t worry your pretty little heads ladies, you won’t be forced to handle snakes or burn incense if you want to work at JC Penneys. When they go to such lengths to soothe people that they aren’t setting a hugely significant precedent that makes little sense, that’s what they’re doing.

Unfortunately, neither is it a good time to be a teacher, firefighter, police officer or any other public employee. The handwriting is on the wall:

By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled in Harris v. Quinn that eight home health care workers in Illinois cannot be compelled to pay dues to a union they don’t wish to join. Illinois is one of 26 states that require public sector workers to pay dues to the unions that negotiate their contracts and represent them in grievances, even if the employees find the union’s advocacy work distasteful.

Union leaders had feared that the justices might strike down those state laws as unconstitutional. The justices did not go that far. They issued a more narrow ruling that the home health care workers at issue in the case are not “full-fledged public employees” because they are hired and fired by individual patients and work in private homes, though they are paid in part by the state, via Medicaid.

Because they’re not truly state employees, the justices decided workers did not have to pay union dues.

But writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito sharply criticized a 1977 precedent, known as Abood, that granted states the right to compel union dues. Alito called that ruling “questionable” and “anomalous,” all but inviting a further challenge in the future. He was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.

Happy 4th of July week everybody. Let’s celebrate our freedom to be serfs!

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