In the devastating Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, on June 30, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed certain bosses to block their employees’ access to birth control. The decision applied to more than half of all U.S. workers — that’s the tens of millions of workers at companies which five or fewer people own more than 50%.
Two privately owned companies brought the case: cabinet manufacturer Conestoga Wood Specialties, and the Hobby Lobby national chain of craft stores, which employs 28,000.
The owners of these companies objected to having health insurance plans that included birth control — a coverage guarantee under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that has allowed more than 55 million American women to access affordable birth control and has saved existing benefit recipients at least $1.4 billion on birth control pills alone since the provision went into effect.
The Hobby Lobby bosses thought it was their business to control their employees’ access to birth control. In fact, the owners claimed that it violated their religious beliefs to let their employees have access birth control coverage. Apparently, the owners were not concerned about trampling on the beliefs and basic health care needs of their employees.
The Court ruled against birth control access in a 5-to-4 decision, with the majority of the justices saying that Hobby Lobby and other “closely held corporations” could deny birth control coverage to their employees. The ruling set a new precedent. For the first time, the Court allowed “the commercial, profit-making world” to deny people access to basic health care like birth control because of religious beliefs. (In the past, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent, the Court only allowed such exemptions to individual people, not to businesses.) Ginsburg noted that the ruling opened the door to the denial of other kinds of health care as well as employees’ other rights, based on their bosses’ beliefs — something that’s already playing out.
The Obama administration quickly swept in to close the loophole that SCOTUS created. In response to the decision, the administration extended the birth control accommodation originally provided only to religiously affiliated nonprofits to closely held for-profit entities, like Hobby Lobby. Although Hobby Lobby-like companies can refuse to cover birth control in their health plans, health insurance companies must directly provide birth control at no cost to employees.
So what’s the take-away? Women shouldn’t have to get their bosses’ permission for birth control coverage. It’s that simple.