On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 "that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom," summarized Adam Liptak in The New York Times the day of the ruling. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called it "a decision of startling breadth," in her dissent, Liptak noted.
The case involved the Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a U.S. chain of about 572 arts and crafts stores. Its leaders-co-founders David and Barbara Green and their family-asserted that their religious beliefs prohibited them from paying for insurance for their female employees under the Affordable Care Act because it covers such forms of contraception as a "morning-after" pill. The family brought suit under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
On October 1, a stellar panel of law and women's reproductive rights experts met in Myron Taylor Hall to talk with law students about the broad implications of the ruling. Panelists included Susan Herman, president of ACLU; Julianna Gonen, director of government relations for the Center for Reproductive Rights; and Leslie Danks Burke, attorney and board member of Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York State. Danks Burke is a former executive director of the Law School's Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture, and Gonen is a Cornell alumna.
Nelson Tebbe, visiting professor at Cornell Law, who moderated, began by stating that "too often the Hobby Lobby case has been treated as if it were about antidiscrimination or LGBT rights, but really it's most centrally about reproductive freedom and women's rights."
"We were told the ruling is limited to closely held corporations," commented Gonen, "but it has the potential to effect a lot of people, and reinforces this 'otherness' of women's health care needs."
Herman, who asserted that the ACLU had a long history on both sides of the issue, went on to state emphatically: "Once you grant that an employer can impose his or her religious views, it opens the door to an unmarried woman being fired because she is pregnant or a pharmacy refusing to fill a prescription for birth control. Religious directives shouldn't trump women's health."
Gonen agreed: "Other countries don't do this-privilege a corporation's religious rights over an individual's."
Tebbe pointed out that in the Hobby Lobby decision: "Justice Kennedy wrote separately that the state did have a compelling interest [in protecting women's reproductive rights], but that there were other means for providing it."
But Danks Burke asserted that "the Hobby Lobby decision, which is about restricting access to birth control, does not respect women's basic civil liberties." It could be a predictor of tougher battles to come involving further restrictions to women's reproductive rights, she warned. "The top thing you can do is vote," Danks Burke told the law students.
"We were incredibly lucky to get such high caliber speakers," said Carolyn Wald, president of Cornell Law Students for Reproductive Justice, a sponsor of the event, which drew a crowd of about 116, almost half of them male, she said. "We were glad to see that women's reproductive rights are important to so many."
"All three panelists and Professor Tebbe challenged the law students to thoughtfully discuss the Hobby Lobby decision," noted Amelia Murphy, president of the Women's Law Coalition, which co-sponsored. Other sponsors were the Cornell American Constitution Society and Cornell Advocates for Human Rights.
-Linda Brandt Myers