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Column: Obamacare and Birth Control

Your Boss’ Beliefs Really Don’t Matter

Washington

Do you know what your boss thinks about Jesus? How about Muhammad, Moses or even Matangi, a Hindu goddess?

If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t know — or care — what your employer believes. As long as you keep getting a paycheck, you’ll keep showing up for work each day. But what you may not realize is your boss’ religion could soon play a major role in the health-care coverage you receive.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider two cases brought by secular, for-profit corporations that oppose the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, which requires most employers to offer optional no-cost birth control to their employees in employer-provided health insurance plans.

Houses of worship and similar ministries are completely exempt from the mandate, while religiously affiliated entities — hospitals, colleges and social service groups — have been accommodated in other ways.

The high court will consider two cases that involve secular, for-profit enterprises that argue corporations are people with a right to “religious freedom.”

Hobby Lobby is a chain of craft stores with more than 500 locations in 41 states and nearly 20,000 employees. The corporation was founded by Dennis Green and his wife, Barbara, and their stores sell things like tacky glue and black mustache foam stickers. That hardly constitutes a religious enterprise, even if the Greens are devout Baptists themselves.

Conestoga Wood Specialties is a Pennsylvania-based operation that manufactures wood cabinets, doors and other products used in home construction and remodeling. It’s also not a religious organization, yet Conestoga’s Mennonite owners, Norman and Elizabeth Hahn, along with their three sons, insist that their “religious freedom” is harmed if their employees have access to free birth control in their insurance plans.

The Greens and the Hahns are wrong. The principle of religious liberty protects your right to make moral decisions for yourself — not others.

Clearly a law that would force anyone to use birth control would be a gross violation of their religious liberty. But the mandate doesn’t do that. It only requires that the employees of secular, for-profit corporations be given the choice to access birth control through a health insurance plan.

Nor can Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga’s owners plausibly argue that their personal rights are violated because they must pay for these health-care plans. A religious objection does not trump someone else’s right to decent medical care. If it did, Americans could lose all sorts of medicines and treatments just because a boss or corporation owner objects.

It’s also important to remember that the mandate doesn’t require anyone to pay for abortions. The abortion question is a red herring raised by some groups to distract from the real issue. The cases before the Supreme Court concern access to birth control, not abortion.

Some far-right religious groups know that they look extreme when they oppose birth control, which has become something that the vast majority of Americans use at some point in their lives. Thus, they are desperately trying to shift the focus to abortion, since people remain divided over that issue.

No one should be fooled. Despite what Hobby Lobby and Conestoga might say, the mandate only requires employee access to birth control pills and devices such as IUDs and diaphragms. Claims that these medicines and devices lead to abortions have been soundly debunked by scientists. In fact, their consistent use would reduce the number of abortions.

If the court does decide that corporations have a religious conscience, there is simply no telling how many business owners and others will seek exemptions from any law they decide violates their “religious freedom.” These cases are thus a very big deal, and their outcome is far from certain.

Don’t know where your boss stands on religion? Maybe you’d better find out.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.