Rights for women or corporations?

PART 3. Can a for-profit company claim “religious liberty” based on opposition to paying for certain types of birth control for employees under the Affordable Care Act? That’s the essence of the unprecedented, controversial, possibly far-reaching case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, which was presented to the Supreme Court on March 25. A similar case by Conestoga Wood is linked to this one.

Many view this case as a fig leaf designed to dismantle the ACA. At the very least, its purpose is to strike free preventive health care coverage for contraception from the ACA, while giving more rights to corporations.

Part 1 of this series sketched the broad outlines of the case and Part 2 discussed why all women need access to free birth control as part of basic health care.  This article profiles firms claiming the religious exemption and the right-wing network that organized and funded this attack on women’s and workers’ rights.

In addition to the two cases, 71 other for-profit companies oppose the mandate based on “religious freedom”; 46 cases are still pending. The magazine Mother Jones noted on April 2 that most of these firms already cover birth control under existing insurance plans, but they oppose coverage for Plan B and intrauterine devices, which they say cause abortions. The Thomas More Law Center, a self-defined “Christian law firm,” filed 11 cases on behalf of 33 plaintiffs.

One of the cases Mother Jones profiled was filed by military contractor Trijicon, which has $8.9 million in active Pentagon contracts for optical equipment attached to weapons that kill people. Trijicon asserts the company and shareholders believe “life begins at conception/fertilization.”

The Gilardis brothers, who own Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, claim their businesses are run based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral values.” However, Lilia Trujillo-Salas sued the company in 2011 for sexual harassment based on multiple incidents of “unwelcome physical contact.” Though Freshway denied the charge, it settled the case with an undisclosed payout.

Eden Foods CEO Michael Potter told Salon in April 2013: “I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? … [D]on’t tell me I gotta pay for it.” The judge who denied Potter’s case ruled that Potter’s “deeply held religious beliefs more resembled a laissez-faire, anti-government screed.”

In addition, 34 nonprofits, primarily religiously affiliated organizations, have sued, claiming that opting out of contraception coverage under the law’s exemption “unduly burdens” their religious rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RH Reality Check (RHRC) noted these cases have a clear political agenda, since most were brought in Circuit Courts of Appeals located in the most conservative states with the most reactionary judges. (April 23)

Hobby Lobby hypocrisy exposed

Until Hobby Lobby filed its lawsuit in 2012, its health care insurance plan covered two of the four methods of birth control it now deems abortifacients (causing abortions) — emergency contraception Plan B and Ella. A March 21 article in Mother Jones reported, “Labels on these products have been updated in Europe to reflect the science, and the Catholic Church in Germany dropped its opposition to local Catholic hospitals providing emergency contraception to rape victims after reviewing the evidence.”

But the company’s hypocrisy goes far beyond that. After Mother Jones analyzed the firm’s financial documents filed December 2012 with the Department of Labor,  it concluded that three-quarters of its total retirement plan assets — $73 million in mutual funds — were invested in companies that manufacture contraceptives, including emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices and drugs used to perform abortions. The financials’ filing date was three months after the company owners filed their lawsuit. (April 1)

In 2012 the firm contributed $3.8 million to its employees’ 401(k) savings plan. Mother Jones concludes: “All nine funds … contained holdings that clashed with [the owners’] stated religious principles. Coupled with details on how Hobby Lobby is funding right-wing political groups … [the] case is about more than allowing companies to deny types of health care coverage for religious reasons. The real reason … seems to be forwarding a religious agenda for the country and to elect politicians who share their beliefs.”

Right-wing groups behind ACA attack

The Alliance Defending Freedom, an avowed Christian “legal ministry,” played a decisive role in lining up friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the Hobby Lobby case, reported RHRC on March 24. The ADF, which RHRC calls one of “the nation’s most radical anti-choice and free-market groups on the political right,” coordinated briefs for 18 states.

Not only does the ADF participate directly in litigation — it opposed same-sex marriage in California in 2004 and the ban on misnamed “partial-birth” abortion in 2007 — but in 2012 it donated more than $4 million in grants supporting right-wing litigation and other activities in the U.S. and internationally. RHRC noted the ADF, which has more than $40 million in assets according to a recent audit, “also played a key role in corralling the conservative push to defeat Obamacare.”

Based on public record requests, RNRC reported that the ADF sent email advisories about the case to congressional staffers, including one in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office, and to a partner in the Jones Day law firm, infamous for its connection to the current attack on Detroit pensions. ADF is also connected to such far-right ruling-class groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Committee for Truth in Politics.

Commenting on the direct relationship between the religious right and Wall Street, Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel at progressive Common Cause, told RHRC: “There’s clearly a coordinated strategy going on. This is a Supreme Court that found that corporations are apparently entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. … Now it’s considering arguments that corporations have religious freedoms. Both the religious right and corporate [United States] stand to benefit from that.”

Given the Supreme Court’s reactionary decision allowing prayer in public meetings on May 5, it is not a stretch to anticipate the conservative-dominated court will extend “religious liberty” to for-profit corporations when it issues its decision in late June.

What is important is that progressive forces supporting women’s and workers’ rights — particularly unions and workplace organizing groups — understand this right-wing attack as part of the ruling-class’ austerity agenda and take to the streets to denounce the unelected, undemocratic court and demand reproductive justice for all women.

Sue Davis, longtime activist for reproductive justice, wrote the pro-choice novel Love Means Second Chances.