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Tilly: The trouble with Hobby Lobby

BY ZACH TILLY | DECEMBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts Shangri-La and America’s foremost hideaway for wearers of embroidered felt vests, is suing the government for “[running] roughshod” over the religious beliefs of the company’s owners.

At issue is the Affordable Care Act’s “contraception mandate.” Under new administrative rules, employer-provided health insurance must meet a set a minimum standards for coverage — that minimum standard requires employees to have access to a wide variety of contraceptives.

The Green family, who own Hobby Lobby, argue that because their business practices “reflect their Christian faith in unmistakable and concrete ways” and because their religious beliefs forbid them from having anything to do with the purchase or use of “abortion-inducing drugs and devices,” such as a the morning-after pill, their religious rights have been violated by the government.

They further argue that they were treated unfairly because the Obama administration lifted the mandate for many religious nonprofit groups but not for Hobby Lobby.

The issue has been weighed in the nation’s lower courts and last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case formally known Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores.

This controversy raises a few tough questions. Should a religious employer have a right to deny her or his employees certain medical procedures simply because they conflict with some religious doctrine? As Amy Davidson pointed out for The New Yorker, “transplants, blood transfusions, vaccines, [and] psychological care” could all potentially be subject to religious complaints.

Do indirect birth-control purchases really leave religious employers “morally complicit” in the “death of an embryo,” as Hobby Lobby contends?

Questions of religion and religious freedom are important, sure, but this issue isn’t simply about God and birth control. It’s also another chapter in the long-fought battle between capital and labor.

The real question here is how much control should a company have over its employees? Do the rights of the Green family outweigh the rights of their employees?

Hobby Lobby — which seems to hold its owners’ religion in higher esteem than its employees — is a testament to the flawed system of employer-centric health care that will remain in place in the United States regardless of the outcome of this Supreme Court case or the success or failure of Obamacare.

As it stands, a vast majority of Americans with private health insurance get it from their employer, which means that a vast majority of those with private health insurance have temporary plans contingent on their continued employment. That arrangement affords employers a great deal of control over their employees who are unable to leave their jobs for fear of losing both their wages and their health insurance.

Employer-provided insurance also subjects workers to a higher risk of premium hikes, particularly when companies have relatively few employees.

And then, of course, the current system leaves some workers unable to choose exactly the type of health plan they want because of the beliefs of the ownership.

Fittingly enough, this pillar of the free-market health insurance system was an accidental byproduct of World War II-era central planning. During the war, the government instituted wage controls, which prompted employers to pad their employees’ compensation with more fringe benefits, including health care. From there, the current system was born.

Until the link between employment and health insurance is broken, the American health care system will be marred by that relationship and resulting moral conflicts such as that facing Hobby Lobby and its workers.


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