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Religious Beliefs Don't "Trump" Women's Equality

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, & Elena Kagan. Photo: S. Petteway
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, & Elena Kagan. Photo: S. Petteway
Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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March 27, 2014

The imposing columns. The ornate and soaring ceiling. The hushed tone. The Supreme Court feels like a place where justice happens. There is a sense of importance, reverence, and loftiness. I’ve worked on every reproductive rights case to reach the Supreme Court in the last 15 years, and, as corny as it sounds, it is always thrilling for me to watch a Supreme Court argument. That excitement is what I felt on Tuesday when I was in the courtroom waiting for the Court to hear the Hobby Lobby case, which is a challenge to the federal law that requires health plans to include contraception.

But then my heart fell as I watched the attorneys for the parties take their seats. There wasn’t a single woman. Not a single person of color. Although it was great that the government sent their top lawyer to defend the case, it was disheartening to see no women at counsel’s table for either party, especially because the case involves women’s access to contraception. How can that be in 2014?

But then the argument started and my heart rose again. Right out of the box, the female justices asked question after question that tested the limits of Hobby Lobby’s argument that religious liberty should trump the contraception rule. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor asked intelligent and pointed questions that demonstrated the fallacy of the companies’ arguments. They asked whether every employer that had a religious objection to any type of health care should get to pick and choose what to offer in health plans, despite the Affordable Care Act requirements. They also asked whether employers should be allowed to refuse to comply with anti-discrimination laws or minimum wage laws because of their religious beliefs.

It wasn’t just the women justices who “got it.” Kennedy asked the companies’ attorney about whether Hobby Lobby would be putting its employees in a “disadvantageous position,” and whether “religious beliefs just trump?”

The answer is no. They don’t trump. Everyone has the right to his or her religious beliefs, but those beliefs cannot be used to take away a benefit from someone else or to discriminate against others. That’s exactly what is at stake here. The contraception rule was designed to ensure women’s equality by eliminating the disparities in health care costs between men and women, and to ensure women have the ability to make decisions about whether and when to become parents, which in turns allow them to participate equally in society.

The Supreme Court feels like a place where justice happens, and I hope justice prevails in this case.

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