By Miriam Stiefel, Former ACLU of Virginia Reproductive Freedom Project Intern
In the next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide one of the most important cases affecting our civil rights and civil liberties – whether a for-profit corporation can deny its employees health coverage for birth control that the employees are otherwise entitled to by federal law. As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government issued a rule that requires health plans to cover contraception without co-pay. Some companies have challenged the rule as an infringement on religious liberty, but this isn’t about religious liberty, this is about women’s access to basic health services and discrimination. Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to use religion to deny health care only women use. I attended the rally outside the Court during oral arguments in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby – here are my reflections from that day:
On the morning of March 25, 2014, I woke up anxious. I was nervous to participate in my first rally since a college protest. While brushing my teeth, I asked myself, “What reactions will the issues discussed today bring about? Who will be there? What will they say?” My nerves began to calm as the snow fell and I walked toward warm-hearted voices coming from a podium in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Hundreds of people from around the county came to rally, forming two distinct groups.
I was in the huddle of people in support of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that new health insurance plans cover birth control, along with other essential preventive services, at no extra out-of-pocket costs. While I waved an ACLU sign outside, listening to doctors, nurses, social workers, faith leaders, and politicians remind the crowd what we all already knew – that birth control is a critical health care service that should remain accessible to women no matter what their bosses believe, inside both sides were making their case to the Justices.
The craft store Hobby Lobby sued the government, arguing that providing birth control infringes on the owner’s religious liberties. However, the birth control without co-pay rule goes far enough to protect religious liberty by including an exemption for churches, other houses of worship, and religiously affiliated organizations, including hospitals and universities. Those employers can opt out of contributing to contraceptive coverage, and instead insurance companies will provide that coverage directly to the employees of those organizations at no cost. The result is that women should get seamless birth control coverage no matter where they work. Employers like Hobby Lobby are not exempt, but the company thinks it should be based on the owner’s religious beliefs. However, the decision of what birth control to use should be between a woman and her doctor—not her boss.
Steadfast opponents of birth control, like Hobby Lobby, denounced these exceptions, saying they will not rest until no employer or insurer – religious or secular – is required to include contraception in their health insurance plans. They will stop at nothing to roll back contraception coverage, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of women will use contraception at some point in their lives. In fact, I rallied in support of birth control coverage specifically because I am motivated by the fact that 99 percent of women use birth control in their lifetime.
During the rally, faith-based messages echoed in both crowds – people whose faith drives them to oppose birth control, and those who agree that we shouldn’t allow corporations to use religion as a license to discriminate. We know that real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control, based on our own beliefs. It doesn’t give one group the right to impose its beliefs on others, or use religion as an excuse to discriminate by denying employees access to vital health services.