Supreme Court Upsets Church-State Balance and Enhances Digital Privacy in Key End-Of Term Decisions

July 1, 2014 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Two years after rejecting a broad constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely held corporations need not comply with the Act’s requirement to provide insurance coverage for contraceptive care if they object on religious grounds.

The ruling came only a few weeks after the Court held that town hall meetings can begin with sectarian prayers in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“Both decisions are profoundly disturbing,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Writing a paycheck does not give businesses the right to impose their religious beliefs on everyone in the workplace by disregarding the legal requirement to include contraceptive care in their employee health care plan, even assuming that businesses can be said to have religious beliefs. Similarly, wielding a gavel at a town hall meeting does not give politicians the right to impose sectarian prayer on everyone in the room.”

The decision in Hobby Lobby only applies to closely held corporations, but that includes some of the largest corporations in this country. And, while Hobby Lobby only addresses the contraceptive care requirement under the Affordable Care Act, similar claims are already being raised in other cases by businesses seeking religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, especially when LGBT rights are at issue.

“Religious freedom does not include the right to discriminate in the commercial marketplace,” Shapiro said. “Hobby Lobby was wrongly decided in our view, but it did not alter that fundamental principle. Instead, it failed to recognize that the denial of contraceptive coverage to working women is a form of discrimination.”

On a far more encouraging note, the Court’s unanimous decision in Riley v. California provided important new protection for digital privacy rights by unanimously rejecting the government’s argument that the search of a cellphone seized during arrest is no different than the search of any other item that might be found in the pocket or purse of someone who has just been arrested.

“The quantity and quality of information that most of us now carry on our digital devices necessarily changes the way we think about privacy,” Shapiro said. “The Court understood that its decision in Riley reflects the importance of preserving our fundamental values in a world of rapid technological change.”

Other major civil liberties decisions this year included McCullen v. Coakley, which struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics. Acknowledging the importance of protecting both the right of peaceful demonstrators to protest on the public streets outside of abortion clinics and the right of women to enter and leave abortion clinics free of the intimidation, harassment and violence that has too often been the norm. The Court concluded that buffer zones could only be upheld if other, less restrictive measures had been first tried and failed, including the vigorous enforcement of existing criminal laws.

And, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Court upheld a state constitutional amendment barring Michigan’s public universities from considering race as a factor in their admissions policies, even though university officials considered affirmative action critical to achieving a diverse student body that benefited all students, and even though minority enrollment declined after the amendment’s passage.

Schuette was one of three direct ACLU cases this term. In United States v. Apel, the Court rejected the claim of an anti-war demonstrator that his arrest outside the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California violated the statute on which the government purported to rely, but sent the case back to the lower courts to determine whether the government’s actions violated the First Amendment. And, in Wood v. Moss, the Court reaffirmed the principal that the government may not discriminate against presidential protestors because the government disagrees with their views, while granting qualified immunity to the Secret Service agents in this case because of what the Court perceived to be reasonable security concerns.

A full summary of this term’s civil liberties cases can be found on the ACLU website at:

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