Thursday, November 28, 2013




Doesn’t Eat, Doesn’t Pray and Doesn’t Love

The question of whether for-profit companies can claim a religious identity, one that exempts them from obeying a generally applicable law, is fully worthy of the attention the Supreme Court is about to give it. But to the extent that much of the commentary about the challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception-coverage insurance mandate frames the issue as a debate about the rights of corporations – as a next step beyond Citizens United’s expansion of corporate free speech – I think it misses the point. What really makes these cases so rich, and the reason the court’s intervention will dramatically raise the temperature of the current term, lies elsewhere.
Marissa Doran
Linda Greenhouse
Opinion Twitter Logo.

Connect With Us on Twitter

For Op-Ed, follow@nytopinion and to hear from the editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, follow@andyrNYT.

Readers’ Comments

The religious-based challenges that have flooded the federal courts from coast to coast – more than 70 of them, of which the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear two – aren’t about the day-in, day-out stuff of jurisprudence under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause: Sabbath observance, employment rights, tax exemptions. They are about sex.
As such, the cases open a new front in an old war. I don’t mean the overblown “war on religion” that some Catholic leaders have accused the Obama administration of waging. Nor do I mean the “war on women” that was such an effective charge last year against a bevy of egregiously foot-in-mouth Republican politicians.
I mean that this is the culture war redux – a war not on religion or on women but on modernity.
All culture wars are that, of course: the old culture in a goal-line stance against a new way of organizing society, a new culture struggling to be born. Usually, that’s pretty obvious. This time, somehow, it seems less so, maybe because the battle is being fought in the complex language of law, namely a 20-year-old law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
This tendentiously named statute, aimed at overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision that cast a skeptical eye on claims to religious exemptions from ordinary laws, provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden serves a “compelling” government interest and is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.
What’s a substantial burden? What governmental interest is sufficiently compelling? And with particular respect to the two new Supreme Court cases, is a for-profit corporation a “person” that can engage in religious exercise? The lower courts are divided, making it all but inevitable that the Supreme Court would step in. (One of the cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., raises only the statutory questions. The other, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, presents the First Amendment issue as well; the company’s Mennonite owners, who employ nearly 1,000 people in their cabinet-making business, argued unsuccessfully in the lower court that the contraceptive coverage mandate violates both their own and their corporation’s right to the free exercise of religion.)
It’s of course a total coincidence that the Supreme Court granted these cases on the same day that The Times published a special section on the changing American family. But Natalie Angier’s fascinating statistical and narrative portraits of the contemporary American household – declining birth rates; even more sharply declining marriage rates; 41 percent of babies born to unmarried parents, a fourfold increase since 1970 – offer some context for the sense of dislocation and alienation that, as much as anything else, seems to be driving the resistance to making contraception coverage, without a co-pay, a required part of employer-provided health insurance.
The religiously committed owners of the companies whose cases the court will decide – Hobby Lobby employs 13,000 people in its 500-store chain – say they object not to all birth control but only to the methods they believe act after fertilization to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and continuing to develop. This belief is incorrect, as a brief filed by a coalition of leading medical authorities demonstrates; although there was once some confusion on this point, the disputed hormonal methods are now understood to prevent fertilization from occurring in the first place. European medical authorities recently reached the same conclusion and have changed the label on an emergency contraception pill to say it “cannot stop a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.”
There is something deeper going on in these cases than a dispute over the line that separates a contraceptive from an “abortifacient.” What drives the anger about this regulation is that, as the opponents see it, the government is putting its thumb on the scale in favor of birth control, of sex without consequences. In a revealing article published earlier this year in the Villanova Law Review, Helen Alvaré, a law professor and longtime adviser to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes the contraception mandate as the culmination of what she calls the “contraceptive project.”
Professor Alvaré writes: “The churches opposing the mandate hold, and teach women and men to maintain, an understanding of the sacredness of sexual intercourse, and its intrinsic connection with the procreating of new, vulnerable human life.” The government policy of covering contraception, she says, would have the effect in law of characterizing these teachings “as violations of women’s freedom and equality.”