By Hailey Lobb, PAC intern
As a student studying political science, I have experienced some pretty emotional debates in classes and among friends. I have seen debates and classroom discussions turn friends into enemies. I have seen debates shut down by professors because the students were attacking the other side a bit too vigorously. I have seen debates turn into sermons, with the other side trying to convince me that I am going to hell because I am on the wrong side of the issue. Because of this political upbringing, in a time where everything is so polarized, I understand that there are issues that people are not willing to budge on. I understand that some people cannot be convinced one way or the other, and I understand that there are some issues that certain groups will not see eye to eye on.
There are some issues, though, where I believe that someone else’s passion for a particular stance cannot influence the choices other people make. Reproductive rights, including a person’s right to an abortion, contraception, and anything else in that field, is one of these issues. What I feel may not be what you feel, and I am not asking you to put your personal beliefs aside for mine. However, I am asking that people respect others’ moral and personal decisions. The case that I am about to delve into is the Court’s next opportunity to show that they stand by those in need of these services and will not allow other people’s religious beliefs to be forced upon innocent people looking to receive the preventative care that they are entitled to. I hope the Court doesn’t let us down.
On March 23rd, 2016, the Supreme Court heard Zubik v. Burwell, a case comprised of six other cases regarding the Health and Human Services mandate in the Affordable Care Act. This mandate requires that all employers and educational institutions provide birth control pills via their insurance plans, and the Court’s decision will determine whether or not religious non-profits can excuse themselves from that requirement. Certain religious institutions opposed this, because they condemn the use of these preventative measures. These concerns were brought up after the implementation of this measure back in 2012, and the Obama Administration, as a way of compromise, decided to excuse houses of worship and churches from the birth control pill coverage. Two years before our current case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was argued in front of the Supreme Court, and it was ruled that “closely held” for-profits could be exempt from the HHS mandate, along with the already exempt houses of worship and churches. However, religious non-profits were asked to submit a form to HHS, a third party administrator, or to their insurance company stating that they did not want to provide this coverage. From that point on, birth control pills would be paid for directly by the insurance company, still saving employees from having to pay for the cost of birth control themselves.
This “accommodation” was then argued by the same institutions to be in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which “prevents the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of a person’s religious beliefs unless it furthers a compelling government interest and uses the least restrictive means for advancing that interest”. The key point here is the “substantial burden” aspect, whose definition is not set in stone. If these religious non-profits can prove that they are being “substantially burdened” by the process of filling out the form, then the Court must decide if the government has a “compelling interest,” which means they have an actual reason for enforcing this policy. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, it was already determined that the government did have a “compelling interest” in providing these services, because the law’s goals were “safeguarding the public health,” “promoting a woman’s compelling interest in autonomy,” and “promoting gender equality.” Finally, the question becomes: is the “accommodation” requirement the “least restrictive” way of going about advancing these goals?
There are multiple possible outcomes. Firstly, if the Supreme Court decides that these non-profits are not being “substantially burdened,” then these organizations will have to continue on with either including these birth control methods in their insurance plans or they will have to abide by the “accommodation,” and those wanting contraception will be able to receive no-cost birth control directly from their insurance providers. Secondly, the Supreme Court could rule in favor of the religious non-profits. If this were to occur, it would mean that these types of organizations could become exempt from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees and the ruling could be applied in other contexts to allow other religious organizations to essentially “block the conduct of the government or [a] third party.”
Without Justice Scalia, there are also two other alternatives that could occur if the Court is split on the issue. First, the lower courts’ decisions (all of the decisions in this case were in favor of the government) will stay for the time being. That means that the “accommodation” will stay and employees will be able to access no-cost birth control, just like what would happen in a favorable ruling. However, the 8th Circuit, which did not have any cases consolidated under Zubik, ruled in favor of the petitioners and said that the “accommodation” was a “substantial burden” on those particular non-profits. In that case, “the religiously affiliated nonprofits that object to contraception in those states would effectively become exempt from the requirement and their employees and dependents would not get contraceptive coverage.” That means that if you live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, or Arkansas, and you work for a religious non-profit, you are, for lack of a better word, screwed. However, a split decision could also mean that the Court will revisit the issue when a ninth Justice is appointed to the bench.
In the United States, a person’s reproductive rights, rights that belong to no one but that individual, are becoming fair game. War is being waged on all sides, in all institutions, and at all levels. The most recent attack was scheduled for March 23rd, 2016. I ask you and the Court to consider the individuals that work for these non-profits, fully believing that the work they are doing is for a just cause, but who still want or need access to birth control pills. I ask you to consider their children, who may or may not have the same religious beliefs as their parents or as the church, who still want or need access to birth control. As an individual, you do not have to believe that using birth control is okay – you can believe it is a sin. Our government grants you the right to believe in what you want, but it also grants that right to every other citizen of this great nation. Please, do not force your beliefs on someone else. Please let individuals make their own choices. Please let people who want birth control make these decisions for themselves.