At the end of its 2013–2014 term, the U.S. Supreme Court undermined workers’ rights in several key rulings, including its radical decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In Hobby Lobby, five male justices on the Supreme Court ruled that owners of certain for-profit corporations who have religious objections to contraception—objections their employees may not share—can withhold health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control that otherwise is required by the Affordable Care Act. The Hobby Lobby ruling is a major blow in the struggle for women’s health and threatens the Affordable Care Act’s goal of ensuring that all working families have access to cost-effective preventive health care. By allowing the owners of companies to pick and choose which provisions of the law they will follow, the Supreme Court’s ruling undermines workers’ rights and, in particular, will make it much more difficult for women to get access to the care they need. The decision also raises the specter of employers arguing that religious objections should override their responsibilities under minimum wage, civil rights, and other workplace laws.
The Hobby Lobby decision also represents an unprecedented extension of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to cover certain for-profit corporations, giving them an avenue for asserting religious freedom claims. And it continues the Supreme Court’s disturbing trend of expanding corporate rights and powers—to spend unlimited sums in elections, to force workers and consumers into mandatory arbitration, to escape reasonable regulations on grounds of corporate free speech rights, and now, to the exercise of religion.
The Hobby Lobby decision is also a reminder of the important role the federal judiciary plays in our daily lives, especially in the areas of women’s health and workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO’s voter education program should incorporate information about the process of judicial nominations and the dynamic relationship between Congress and the federal courts (e.g., the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay legislation). Furthermore, because the women’s vote is so critical this year, access to health care is a mobilizing issue and should be incorporated into voter education campaigns as it is sure to galvanize eligible women voters.
The AFL-CIO strongly supports the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act, which would overturn Hobby Lobby and prevent the owners of companies from denying their workers essential health care coverage. We commend Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Louise Slaughter on their leadership on this issue and urge swift passage of the legislation.