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SCOTUS Reinterprets Religious Liberty to Justify Corporate Discrimination

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Patricia Miller and Tarso Luis Ramos say the decision reinterprets religious liberty in order to justify discriminatory practices of corporations, and privileges religious freedom of corporations over individuals.


ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

In a 5 to 4 decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for-profit corporations can deny insurance coverage for contraception on the basis of their religious freedom. The case was brought to the Supreme Court by two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, who claim that the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act violated their religious freedom.

Joining us now to discuss the decision are two guests.

Patricia Miller is a Washington, D.C., based journalist and editor who has written extensively about the intersection of politics, sex, and religion. She is author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church.

Also joining us is Tarso Luís Ramos. He’s the executive director of Political Research Associates, a social justice organization that published the 2013 report “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign against Civil Rights.”

Thank you both for joining us.



WORONCZUK: So, Tarso, let’s start with you. Give us a quick summary of the decision, to whom will it apply, and who will be affected.

RAMOS: Well, you summed it up fairly well, Anton. The Supreme Court today struck a horrible blow against religious liberty in America. The framers of the Constitution sought to defend individual conscience against the edicts of religious institutions backed by the coercive power of government. This case, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, effectively transforms the framers’ notion of religious liberty as a shield against tyranny into a sword institutions can wield to impose religious dictates on individuals in the marketplace. They take the finding in Citizens United, an earlier decision, that businesses are, corporations are people a step further and endow corporations with religious—constitutionally protected religious beliefs that they can impose on their employees and others.

Most specifically, they allow businesses to claim an objection to the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act and thereby refuse to provide certain contraceptions to their employees. As your viewers may be aware, employees are required to provide health insurance, but they do not generally dictate what can be included within those health insurance plans. So this represents a fundamental shift in a variety of ways.

WORONCZUK: Patricia, let’s get your take. Do you see this Supreme Court decision as a win for religious freedom?

MILLER: This is a big loss for religious freedom, specifically for the religious freedom of the female employers of Hobby Lobby, who were not consulted on their religious beliefs or practices when it comes to the use of contraception. Almost 99 percent of American women use contraceptives at some point in their life, and every major religious denomination, with the exception of Catholicism, backs the use of contraception. The rights of those women and their religious practices to use family planning, to balance their family interests against their religious practices, was completely overlooked in this decision.

WORONCZUK: And, Patricia, what is the religious basis of the argument that some supporters of the decision are making for connecting the use of contraception to abortion?

MILLER: The heart of their religious argument is that life begins at the moment of conception and that certain forms of birth control are in fact abortifacients because they interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg. That is a very specious claim for one specific form of contraception that’s been at the heart of the Hobby Lobby case, which is emergency contraception. Emergency contraception is a contraceptive. It’s an oral contraceptive. Like all oral contraceptives, it works by preventing fertilization from occurring. But the Catholic bishops here in the United States leveraged a tiny amount of uncertainty about how emergency contraception works when it was first introduced in the late 1990s to say that perhaps under a very limited number of circumstances it could be an abortifacient.

That has since been disproven. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that emergency contraceptions are not abortifacients. Yet they still claim as their religious belief that they believe that these common medications are actually a form of abortion. It is scientifically untrue.

But even as a religious belief, it is just that: is a religious belief based on the fact that some religious people believe life begins at contraception, that they are being allowed to impose on the huge majority of women who do not believe that, who use birth control in good conscience, which their consciences have dictated is the right decision for them.

WORONCZUK: Tarso, does this open the door for corporations to become exempt from other federal laws and regulations and allow them to discriminate against their employees in other ways, like, for example, on the basis of sexual orientation, if they believe that this conflicts with their religious beliefs?

RAMOS: It remains to be seen exactly how courts will interpret this ruling going forward, but, yes, I believe that the court has put us on a slippery slope towards the use of religious belief as a justification for affirmative discrimination on the basis of multiple kinds of protected statuses.

It’s important to know that this ruling is part of a broader campaign waged by the religious right not only in the courts but also through state legislatures. We recently saw in Arizona a bill that explicitly give permission for businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender customers. And although that was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, we saw just a month later Mississippi pass a nearly identical law. So there this broader campaign to reinterpret the meaning of religious liberty as an affirmative right to discrimination. And even in the context of the courts, it’s important to point out that the rhetoric of religious liberty has been used to justify discrimination on a variety of bases, going back several decades, most notably, the very famous or infamous Bob Jones University case where racial segregation, even using tax dollars supporting that institution, were justified on the basis of religious liberties and religious exemptions. So I believe that we are on this slippery slope of using religious belief as a justification for affirmative discrimination.

Now, that being said, it is also the case that the deciding opinion here argues that this is a very narrowly-tailored decision, that this applies only to closely held corporations. And there appears to be an attempt to describe this as somehow applying only to mom-and-pop shops. In fact, Hobby Lobby, just to use that one example, is a national chain of over 500 craft stores. This is not a corner store. This is not your corner hardware store or religious bookstore. This is a national enterprise.

And so I do believe that the court has put us on a slippery slope towards discrimination, and that we’ll see a slew of challenges, legal challenges, on that basis, and that this will also embolden the backers of affirmative discrimination to advance their legislative strategy in other states. And, in fact, we see close to a dozen states around the country where legislation along the lines of Arizona and Mississippi are working their way through committees.

WORONCZUK: Now, it also seems that the decision is also somewhat about property rights, too, in the sense that it’s the religious beliefs of corporations’ owners, of the bosses, that actually trump that of its employees.

RAMOS: Well, that’s exactly right. And I think I want to double down on something Patricia was saying, that despite the rhetoric of conservative religious right leaders, the battle for the meaning of religious liberty here is not between Christianity and secularism but between pluralism and authoritarianism. However strong the convictions may be, this campaign is about exempting themselves from federal laws [incompr.] government [incompr.] to impose their religious beliefs on others in ways that violate the religious conscience of those individuals. And so it’s not a contest between religion and secularism or between religious liberty and freedom from religion; it’s a contest between individual conscience and the ability of powerful institutions, in this case for-profit businesses, to impose what they claim to be their religious beliefs on their employees, on their customers, potentially, and others.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Patricia Miller, author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, and Tarsos Luís Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates.

Thank you both for joining us.

MILLER: Thank you.

RAMOS: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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