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The Supreme Court Hears Arguments in the Contraceptive Coverage Cases: Are the Employees’ Voices and Health Needs Being Heard?

Cross-posted from Alliance for Justice.

The companies seeking to deny women access to a benefit guaranteed under the health care law—coverage of all FDA-approved methods of birth control and related education and counseling without cost-sharing—made some questionable claims yesterday before the Supreme Court. Two in particular are worth exploring, especially since they’ve gotten short shrift in the post-argument analysis.

The first troubling argument was that the government does not have as compelling an interest in requiring insurance coverage for birth control as compared to other health care services. Paul Clement (the lawyer representing the companies) framed his opening by talking about how “religiously sensitive” it is to require birth control coverage. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan questioned this notion, asking how far an exemption for companies with religious objections would go. What about an owner who has religious objections to vaccinations or blood transfusions? Are those “religiously sensitive”? Should a boss be able to deny employees coverage of those health care services because of a religious belief? Clement responded that this case is “easier than” those cases because birth control is “so religiously sensitive, so fraught with religious controversy” and the government may have a “stronger compelling interest [in those cases] than it does” in this case. Read more »

My Health Is Not Your Hobby

This was just one of the many witty slogans held high on posters at the snow-covered rally at the Supreme Court yesterday. Nearly a thousand supporters came out to tell America that women should be able to make their own decisions about birth control – not their bosses.

As I looked at all those women (and men) standing in the freezing cold, soaking wet but still rallying for hours I couldn’t help but think of the women who weren’t there, who believed it wasn’t safe to speak out themselves -- and I was about to speak for one of them. That, and the fact that it was actually snowing in late March in Washington, DC, may end up being the two things that I’ll most remember about the day.

Inside the Court, Justices were hearing arguments on two cases, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, brought by for-profit companies that claim that because of their owners’ religious beliefs they should be allowed to break the law and deny their female employees birth control coverage.

Basically, even though 99% of sexually active women have used birth control, and we finally got a law that guarantees women affordable birth control, a bunch of corporations actually went to the Supreme Court because they want to control women’s health care decisions under the guise of free exercise of religion. Read more »

The Tenth Circuit Should Join the Unanimous Trend Towards Marriage Equality

Last year, the decision in United States v. Windsor represented a huge victory for marriage equality, as the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. While the Supreme Court ducked the question posed by a companion case of whether a state ban on marriage between same-sex couples violated the Fourteenth Amendment, since Windsor the trend in lower courts has been unanimous: so far, 18 decisions have found these bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is now poised to address the question in Kitchen v. Herbert and Bishop v. Smith, two cases which arise out of bans on marriage between same-sex couples in Utah and Oklahoma, which lower courts struck down. Read more »

Supreme Court Case About Unionizing Home Care Workers Raises High Stakes

The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t do snow days, apparently. While much of D.C. hunkered down Tuesday for our latest winter storm, the Court went on as usual, hearing oral arguments in a case that could upset years of established labor law. It could leave low-wage workers, overwhelmingly women, who provide home health care services under Illinois’ Medicaid program—and potentially other public employees—without a voice at the negotiating table. Knowing how high the stakes are, I ventured out to listen.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, addresses key questions about the unionizing of in-home care providers paid by the state of Illinois through two Medicaid programs. Here is a boiled-down version of the main issues: First, if a majority of care providers vote in favor of an exclusive bargaining representative (a union), can the state recognize and negotiate with that union? Second, can the providers who voted against unionization be required to pay a “fair share fee,” a payment that goes to cover the administrative costs of bargaining the contract that also benefits them? Read more »

McCullen v. Coakley at the Supreme Court: Buffer Zones, "Protesters," and "Counselors"

“What’s wrong with having everyone take a step back?” Justice Kagan asked yesterday at oral argument in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge to a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot “buffer zone” around reproductive health clinics. Here are some thoughts on the argument from inside the courtroom, where I was in the audience.

Taking a step back, the protesters challenging the law argue, undermines their speech which they assert is effective only if they are able to engage women entering the clinic in close, quiet conversations. But do the Free Speech rights of McCullen and other protesters include the right to speak in the particular way they seek to speak? And, what about a woman’s right to safely access a reproductive health clinic?

Massachusetts argues that the law is permissible because it does not target anti-abortion speech; rather, it aims to keep clinic entrances open and accessible. In fact, even employees and clinic escorts are also prohibited from advocating within the buffer zone. And pro-choice activists along with anti-abortion protesters must stand outside the 35-foot buffer zone. Speech may be limited, but only incidentally: the point is to keep clinic entrances clear. Read more »

Today, Supreme Court Considers Law That Protects Abortion Clinic Employees and Patients

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important case for protecting women’s access to reproductive health services. The case is McCullen v. Coakley, a case challenging a Massachusetts “buffer zone” law. The Massachusetts law simply regulates the conduct of the public by ensuring reproductive health care facilities have a 35-foot radius to keep their doors and driveways unobstructed for patient access. Read more »

Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Birth Control Coverage Benefit

Today, the Supreme Court decided that it will review two challenges by for-profit companies against the birth control coverage rule, which requires health plans to include coverage for birth control at no cost-sharing. One of the cases was brought by Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of arts and crafts stores with over 500 stores and 13,000 employees. The other case was brought by Conestoga Wood Specialties, a company that makes wood cabinets and other wood specialty products and has nearly 1,000 employees. The cases will likely be argued before the Court in the spring.

These are just two of over 40 lawsuits brought by bosses at for-profit companies seeking to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and deny them a critical health benefit. These cases raise big questions, like whether a for-profit corporation is a “person” capable of exercising religious belief and whether requiring a company’s health plan to cover birth control amounts to a “substantial burden” on religious exercise. Read more »

U.S. Supreme Court Turns Down Opportunity to Stand Up for Texas Women

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a devastating ruling Tuesday in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, refusing to block a law that is forcing one-third of Texas’ abortion clinics to stop offering vital services.

Back in July of 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law H.B. 2, which, among other things, requires abortion providers to obtain unnecessary admitting privileges at local hospitals. Almost immediately, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union joined forces with a local Texas firm and filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen Texas health care providers and their patients.

The district court judge found the restriction both unconstitutional and unnecessary and prevented the restriction from going into effect. His ruling was a clear victory for Texas families, yet was almost immediately reversed by a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided that decreasing the number of physicians available to perform abortions and increasing the cost of abortions was not an “undue burden” on the women of Texas, and allowed the law to remain in effect while the matter is fully litigated in the courts. Read more »

Oklahoma’s Decision Protecting Abortion Rights Left Untouched By Supreme Court

Early Monday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case of Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice. At issue in Cline was an Oklahoma law which effectively bans a woman’s ability to terminate an early pregnancy through the use of medication abortion. Medication abortion is both safe and legal – and has been since its FDA approval over a decade ago. For a number of women, it is also the preferred method of abortion. One in four women who have an early abortion decides on this method. Not only is medication abortion safe and legal, it is also protects women’s privacy by allowing them to complete the abortion in the comfort of their own homes rather than in a medical office.

Because the scope of the law was somewhat ambiguous, there was a question as to whether or not the statute truly bans medication abortion. Last December, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a decision on the law. Without addressing the law’s scope, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said that the law was an impermissible restriction on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution. In an effort to keep up the fight, Oklahoma appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read more »

This 50th Anniversary I’m Ready to Work

This afternoon I’m headed to the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Today’s event is both a commemoration and call to action. Thousands are gathering to remember the 1963 March and to outline the remaining civil rights agenda. Read more »