The vote by the US Supreme Court’s five reactionary Catholic male members in the Hobby Lobby case, declaring that companies substantially owned by people who on religious grounds believe that contraception is a sin can not be compelled to offer coverage for it in any health plan provided to their employees raises a few important questions.
The biggest one of course, is: Why if this is a decision based upon the Constitution’s separation of church and state, would it stop at contraception?
How about a company owned by Jehovah’s Witness believers? They believe that the bible, by banning the ingestion of blood, makes any blood transfusions, or even for many believers, the storing of blood for later use, a sin. Should such employers be allowed to offer insurance plans to their worker that don’t cover blood transfusions, or perhaps that even deny coverage for operations that require blood transfusions — for example dialysis, heart surgery, treatment for leukemia and bone cancer, or just emergency surgery following some injury that involves major blood loss?
Or what about a company owned by a Christian Scientist, who opposes any and all medical intervention. Should such a company be able to offer a plan that only covers palliative care by a hospice nurse, or visits by a religious “healer”?
We have, of course, entered that Alice-in-Wonderland world here of “faith-based conservatism.” Any kind of nonsense could be justified in such a world, and with the five right-wing Catholics now ensconced on the court supporting such a mad world view, we should be ready for it. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the sixth Catholic on the nine-member court (the other three are Jews, in an astonishing turn of events that has filled the court entirely with representatives of two faiths that historically were barred from the court or that were allowed just token representation), will have her hands full trying to make the theological argument against the troglodyte and anti-woman sentiments of her five catholic colleagues.
Meanwhile, there is another problem with the Hobby Lobby ruling. Hobby Lobby, like most of those companies that still offer insurance plans to their workers, does not actually pay for the full cost of the policies. In fact, in many workplaces, workers pay the bulk of the premiums for their insurance. All the company does is arrange for the group coverage. Furthermore, if the company does pay a share of the cost for its workers, it is allowed to deduct those costs from its income, and is thus being subsidized by the nation’s taxpayers. To say that those employers are “paying” for the insurance is simply a fraud and a lie.
One could go further, actually, and note that health insurance is not offered by employers to workers because employers are being benevolent and are concerned about their workers’ health. Rather, they offer health benefits as one part of the compensation package, just like any contribution they offer to a worker’s 401(k) plan or, if they are in that tiny minority that still offer them, pension. The worker took the job because in addition to the wage offered, there was a health plan. In other words, the health plan is part of the worker’s pay package.
Many employers, in fact, make a point of annually showing their workers, in dollars, what their “total compensation package” is worth, adding in things like health benefits and employer 401(k) contributions, to make sure they know how much loyalty they should feel towards the boss. These parts of the compensation workers earn for providing their labor — including the employer’s share of the insurance premium — are just as much the employees’ money as is the employer’s share of the FICA tax credited each paycheck to each worker’s Social Security account.
We have two major problems here, both illustrated by the perverse Hobby Lobby decision. One is that, quite the opposite of their stated explanation of separating church and state, a cabal of five male Catholics — all ideologically-driven members of the Federalist Society — are pushing their reactionary religious agenda on the country. The other is that, thanks to the legacy of the wage controls during World War II, which led employers to offer health benefits as a way of attracting and retaining scarce workers, the US, alone in the modern industrialized world, relies on employers to be the main providers of heatlhcare to its citizens — a feudalistic arrangement that keeps workers chained to their job, afraid to organize, and if organized, afraid to strike.
Maybe, as I think more about this, the answer would be to replace these Catholic justices with Christian Scientists. At least if they turned out, against the tradition of that rather live-and-let-live religion, to be as aggressive in forcing their own theology on the rest of us as is the radical cabal of Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Scalia and Kennedy, they would simply rule that no employers should be have to provide health insurance to workers, and we could finally move on to a national health care system like Canada’s or Britain’s.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).