This Letter to the Editor appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Tuesday editorial on the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision claims the decision "bulwarks Americans' freedom." Clearly the Tribune editorial board has a narrower view of freedom than many Americans, particularly American women, whose health, financial well-being and religious liberty are eroded by the decision.

The Hobby Lobby decision marks the first time the court has ever permitted employers to use their religious beliefs to deny employees benefits guaranteed by law. Courts long had refused to allow employers to use religion as a justification for refusing to comply with general laws such as equal pay and Social Security laws.

After Hobby Lobby, that could change.

This unprecedented and unprincipled decision strikes a blow at an increasingly diverse workforce. Insurance benefits, like wages, are something employees earn. Nevertheless, women across the nation now must subjugate the important medical decision of which contraceptive method to use to the religious beliefs of their employer.

This is a loss of freedom, not an expansion.

The Hobby Lobby decision stigmatizes and marginalizes contraceptives and, correlatively, the women who use them -- which is 99 percent of American women during their years of fertility.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes in her powerful dissent, access to effective birth control is essential to women’s ability to participate equally in our society; the Affordable Care Act requirement that birth control be provided, without additional charge, as part of preventive health care is key to women’s health and financial well-being.

By allowing employers -- rather than women -- to decide which method of birth control is religiously acceptable and, thus, insurable, the court empowers employers to impose their religious judgments on the women who work for them.

The court claims that its decision is narrow, dismissing concerns that it will encourage other employers to seek religious exemptions from insuring health care such as blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or immunizations (Christian Scientists). This suggestion both marginalizes other strongly held religious beliefs and reproductive health care.

Both the court and the Tribune ignore the dangerous precedent Hobby Lobby sets with respect to non-discrimination laws. The decision will embolden those who suggest that their religious liberty permits them to pick and choose which generally applicable laws they follow. We saw these arguments in the 1960s and 1970s, when people raised religious objections to providing goods and services to African-Americans; we have seen these arguments in recent efforts to pass state laws that would permit discrimination against gays and lesbians. And we will see them again -- invoking the court’s decision in Hobby Lobby.

A free and pluralistic society requires everyone, including corporations with religiously observant owners, to comply with laws intended to advance the public interest and public health, particularly where, as here, the refusal to do so harms others.

The court and the Tribune simply got it wrong.

-- Colleen K. Connell, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Chicago

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