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NWI residents react to birth control decision

Hobart Hobby Lobby U.S. 30. | Joe Puchek~Sun-Times Media

Hobart Hobby Lobby on U.S. 30. | Joe Puchek~Sun-Times Media

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday that forcing small businesses and certain corporations to provide birth control to employees violates their religious rights met with mixed reaction in Northwest Indiana.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said the ruling concerned her because of the rights it extended to businesses. She said that although the Supreme Court ruled that some smaller corporations — those under the control of just a few people in which there is no essential difference between the business and its owners — can have religious rights, their employees still must “check their religion at the door.”

“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “Are you going to allow a corporation to impose its religious beliefs on its employees?”

Valparaiso University Law School professor Ivan Bodensteiner said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, based on other recent Supreme Court rulings that have granted rights to corporations, but it was the wrong one.

“I think the danger is that it continues (the court’s) practice of effectively allowing people and organizations to opt out of general applicability laws,” he said.

Bodensteiner said the decision seems to go against one made more than 100 years ago that said the federal government could prohibit polygamy, even though it was a religious practice. And although some will argue the court’s decision is a narrow one tailored to birth control, Bodensteiner said he thinks efforts will be made to extend it to other issues.

“I think we’re inviting many other exemptions,” he said.

Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, had challenged the provision in the Affordable Care Act that employers cover contraceptives for women. Some shoppers at the Hobby Lobby in Hobart agreed Monday that a business should not be able to decide what its employees can and cannot do in their personal lives.

“As a woman, I believe health care should be equal access for everyone even if, as a Christian, I don’t believe in abortion,” Michelle Wilson, of Gary, said. “If employees are contributing to their health care, they should get what they need. But I worked for a faith-based company, and they did the same thing because they do have that right.”

A Gary resident who identified herself only as Lisa D said she didn’t think it was a business’ right to tell employees what to do in their free time or to invade their personal medical choices.

“But I’m not necessarily going to stop shopping (at Hobby Lobby) because I’m sure someone in every store is going to disagree with me,” she said.

Another shopper, Annie Swanson, of Crown Point, also expressed mixed feelings on the Supreme Court ruling.

“It’s their rights as a company, and I try not to affiliate myself with a store’s politics,” she said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask an employee what they do in their free time.”

One local activist praised the decision, however. Jennifer Feeney, a LaPorte woman who has spoken at rallies protesting Obamacare’s birth control mandate, said she was happy the Supreme Court recognized the rights of business owners to follow their religious views.

“Nobody should be forced to provide objectionable health care against their religious convictions,” she said.

Feeney argued that birth control isn’t the same thing as treating a disease but is instead a personal choice, much like getting a gym membership or eating broccoli.

Tallian said the penalties that Hobby Lobby and the two other companies in the case faced for not following the birth control mandate were too harsh, and she would like to see a compromise. Whether that will best be achieved by what the Supreme Court proposed — extending an exemption that the government has given to religious groups and religious-based nonprofit groups — will depend on the details, she said.

One local group — Franciscan Alliance, which owns several hospitals in Lake County — has challenged that exemption. Groups that meet the requirements for the exemption must verify that by completing a form, and the government then requires insurance companies to directly pay for the birth control of employees.

But Franciscan Alliance contends that even the act of filling out the form is tantamount to violating its religious rights. Franciscan Alliance sued over the issue in 2012, and a federal judge has issued a stay, preventing the government from punishing Franciscan Alliance as the case works its way through the courts.

Gene Diamond, chief executive of Franciscan Alliance’s Northern Indiana Region, declined to comment on Monday’s ruling or how it might affect the organization’s lawsuit.

Despite the Supreme Court touching on the exemption option as one way the government can provide free birth control to women without violating an owner’s religious rights, Bodensteiner said it’s hard to tell from this ruling how the justices will rule on Franciscan Alliance’s case and others.

The real ramifications of the ruling likely won’t be known until similar cases have progressed through the legal system, he said.

“Ten years from now we’ll have more of an answer,” Bodensteiner said.

Contributing: Michelle L. Quinn



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