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July 14, 2014

Hobby Lobby Elicits Varied Editorial Responses

On June 30, the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby affirmed the right of family-owned companies to deny employees, based on the religious beliefs of the employer, health insurance coverage for contraceptives. As Professor Erwin Chemerinsky warned at the ADL’s 2014 Supreme Court Review, the decision could have far-reaching implications for workers’ civil and religious rights.newspapers-hobby-lobby

Editorial boards for the nations’ top newspapers opposed the landmark decision by a 2-1 ratio. Of the fifty newspapers with the highest circulation, twenty-five disagreed with the Supreme Court’s position in Hobby Lobby. Thirteen supported the decision. Twelve offered no opinion on the topic.

Of those periodicals that opposed the decision, some objected to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to grant legal protections to corporations that traditionally have been reserved for human beings. The Cleveland Plain Dealer insisted that “corporations are not ‘persons’ who think, breathe and exercise first-amendment rights or practice religious beliefs,” and warned that “[t]reating them as if they are will inevitably narrow freedoms for others.” The Detroit Free Press called the decision an expansion of “the majority’s already inflated notion of corporate personhood.”

Other opponents view the decision as a setback for reproductive rights. The San Jose Mercury News criticized the Court for failing to recognize the importance of access to contraceptives for women’s rights: “Worldwide, the single greatest factor in lifting societies out of poverty is women gaining the ability to control when they become pregnant.” The Minneapolis Star Tribunesaid that “allowing an employer to choose which type of contraception merits coverage reverts to an earlier, darker age in attitudes about women’s role in reproduction.”

Still others fear that the decision opens the door to further erosion individuals’ rights and government entanglement in the exercise of religion. The New York Times called the decision “a radical departure from the court’s history of resisting claims for religious exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability when the exemptions would hurt other people.” USA Today warned of the “deeply disturbing proposition” that the decision could force the government to judge “whether a business’s religious principles merit special treatment that its more secular competitors don’t get.” The Washington Post urged Congress to limit the damage of the decision by legislatively overturning it.

Supporters, however, hail Hobby Lobby as a bold recognition of religious liberty. The Wall Street Journal called the decision “an important vindication of religious liberty in this (still, blessedly) constitutional republic.” The New York Daily News celebrated that Court’s conclusion that “owners of closely held companies should not be forced to sacrifice their religious liberty simply because they incorporated to do business.”

However one views the Court’s decision, Hobby Lobby clearly touches on many political and legal fault lines. The ADL believes that the decision threatens many anti-discrimination laws and will work to limit its impact.

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