However you look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on birth control, it was a mess. First, the court had to decide that corporations have religious rights, which seems unlikely on its face, and then it ruled that different kinds of corporations have an economic advantage over others by being exempted from costs others are required to bear. It’s a shambles – and one that isn’t finished playing out.
The ruling came in a case filed by Hobby Lobby, the crafts store chain. The company contended that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to provide insurance benefits that include birth control violated its religious beliefs. In a 5-4 ruling, the court agreed and issued a decision that would allow closely held, for-profit businesses to opt out of that requirement.
But, Mitt Romney’s insistence notwithstanding, corporations are not people and cannot have religious beliefs. Corporations are legal entities created through a registration process. They exist because a document says they exist. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t worry about how to pay for the kids’ college. They just are, and what they are, are vehicles to help their principals make money. Rules apply. Some may be wise and some not, but that is a matter for presidents and Congress, not Supreme Court justices.
And, it gets worse. The Supreme Court granted Hobby Lobby and similar corporations – amounting to about 90 percent of all businesses, by some estimates – economic advantages over others, since they are not required to provide health insurance policies that include birth control coverage. It’s hard to imagine the courts won’t be called upon to sort out that and other difficult questions that come with the Supreme Court’s tortured ruling.
Confusion has continued. The Obama administration, in an effort to placate businesses with objections, created a mechanism by which they could decline to offer the coverage, but under which the insurer will still be required to provide it. In fact, in the Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito referred to that opt-out as a possible path for businesses. But a federal appeals court granted a temporary injunction on implementation of the rule based on an objection from a Catholic television network.
It is, in some ways, not surprising. When issues as large as the ones at play come into conflict, the path forward is often tangled. But it doesn’t help when the highest court in the land buys into the idea that corporations are people and that different corporations have different rights.