Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling elicits range of Berkeley reactions

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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday allowing family-owned corporations to opt out of a health care coverage requirement on religious grounds generated a range of perspectives in the Berkeley community.

In a ruling that sparked debate across the nation, the Supreme Court determined that “closely held” corporations — for which the majority of the stocks are held by a small group of shareholders — with religious objections don’t have to follow the Affordable Care Act requirement to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives on workers’ health plans. The 5-4 decision was in favor of Hobby Lobby, a company run on Christian principles, and determined that requiring the owners to pay for something contrary to their religious beliefs violated their religious freedom.

Steven Sullivan, co-founder and owner of Berkeley-based bakery Acme Bread Company, said the decision will likely not affect his business but raised concerns about the concept of corporate personhood, under which a corporation has the same legal status as an individual.

“While I don’t think this decision will have a major impact in California, I believe that corporations should be separate from the people who run them,” Sullivan said.

Kenneth Bamberger, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, said the ruling set a dangerous precedent under which corporations might find loopholes to bypass regulations by claiming to have religious beliefs that deny the fundamental rights of employees.

“The decision goes to suggest that a corporation could claim they don’t believe in medical intervention and deny medical care to employees,” Bamberger said. “Corporations might say they aren’t going to follow the health care and equality laws that oppose their religious beliefs.”

But Claire Chiara, president of the Berkeley College Republicans and former staff writer for The Daily Californian, said the Supreme Court has strict guidelines for the types of businesses to which the ruling applies.

After the ruling, women’s rights activists also condemned the decision as a severe violation of women’s freedom. Adopting the slogan #jointhedissent, Mon-Shane Chou, president of Cal Berkeley Democrats, supported Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s inflammatory disapproval, which she expressed in a 35-page response that she wrote reacting to the decision.

“This is another chip away at women’s … and individual rights, our own health and the relationship between our own bodies and our religion,” Chou said.

Although the Hobby Lobby case only focused on contraception, it sets a precedent for future cases that may involve other medical treatment, including vaccinations and blood transfusions, Chou said.

Chiara argued that no one is losing access to birth control, a major point of controversy regarding the decision.

“The ruling is in no way infringing on anyone’s reproductive right,” Chiara said. “It didn’t outlaw the types of birth control in question, it simply removed the actual requirement for businesses to pay for any type of birth control.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, Chiara said, many companies with religious beliefs were required to cover birth control methods, such as Plan B, or the “morning-after” pill, and intrauterine devices, that they might view as akin to abortion.

Bamberger said it’s too early to determine the impact of the ruling or how it will affect business regulation, and he speculated that companies may exploit the vague boundaries set by the decision.

“The Supreme Court decision set a precedent going forward that is very hard to assure in language,” Bamberger said. “It is too blurry whether a business should be treated as a corporation or an extension of the family.”

Contact Sarah Rockwood at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @srockwood44.