Republicans who opposed the Affordable Care Act and its contraception mandate have won a big victory at the Supreme Court. But they may have hurt their own political future in the process.
The Supreme Court sided with two religious families who argued that providing contraception to their employees as mandated under Obamacare violated their religious beliefs. Now, thanks to the court’s decision, closely held corporations—who employ millions of Americans—have religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., after the craft chain store that challenged the mandate, the five conservative justices weighed in on two highly politicized issues: Women’s access to contraception and the idea of corporate personhood.
Two years ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran into trouble when he declared, “Corporations are people, my friend.” It’s a legal theory that has induced the ire of liberals since the Supreme Court decided in January 2010 to open up the floodgates of third-party election spending in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission by deciding that corporations have free speech rights.
Now, they have religious rights, too, and those rights trump the right of female employees to cost-free contraception. As constitutional law expert Adam Winkler put it, “Corporations are people, and they have more rights than you.”
While the GOP’s base is easily fired up over the Supreme Court—which they hope will one day overturn Roe v. Wade, which made abortion a constitutional right—Democrats struggle to make the court a top priority for their voters. Democrats will likely try to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby ruling in this year’s midterms, trying to impress upon voters that control of the Senate could determine who sits on the Supreme Court.
“Today’s Hobby Lobby decision is a grim reminder of how much is at stake in this election,” Regan Page, a spokeswoman at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, said Monday. “Nearly every Republican Senate candidate in the country supports radical measures that would block birth control and roll back women’s health care rights even further than today’s ruling.”
More than the court itself, Democrats see the contraception issue as a winning political issue among one of their key constituencies: young, unmarried women. In March, a poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood and conducted by Hart Research Associates found that a whopping 81 percent of female voters age 18 to 55 believe prescription birth control should be covered without additional cost, just as Obamacare intended. On the question at stake in Hobby Lobby, 68 percent of these women believed corporations should not be able to exempt themselves from covering contraceptives on religious grounds.
Democrats in Congress and those running in the November midterms know they have the upper hand on the politics, even if they lost at the court.
“If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said in a statement after the judgment was delivered. “We will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room.”
Shortly after the ruling, reports began to circulate that Senate Democrats would take up legislation to combat the Hobby Lobby ruling. Though any legislation to reverse the decision will likely fail without Republican support—and House Speaker John Boehner has already praised the Hobby Lobby ruling—Democrats mean to make the most of the issue.
Republican candidates also know the issue is a sticky one for them. In Colorado, Republican Representative Cory Gardner, who is taking on incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall, tried to support both Hobby Lobby and access to birth control. “The court made the right decision today to protect religious liberty and the First Amendment,” said Gardner. “The Food and Drug Administration now needs to move quickly to make oral contraceptives available to adults without a prescription. This easy step will make oral contraceptives both accessible and affordable for every woman who wants them. It’s common sense and it’s the right thing to do.”
Udall’s campaign has been hammering Gardner for months over his support of a Colorado amendment that would not only ban abortion but also some forms of contraception. Gardner reversed course in March, saying he no longer supports these so-called "personhood" amendments he supported for years because he didn't realize they would ban forms of birth control.
Republicans began their opposition to the contraception rule in early 2012, objecting to it as a matter of religious freedom rather than as opposition to contraception. They held hearings in which religious leaders objected to the idea of companies being forced to cover contraception. But Democrats and women’s rights groups have framed the Republicans’ position as an assault on women’s rights, and they used it effectively in the 2012 elections.
Hobby Lobby will now keep the contraception issue alive in 2014 and likely beyond, helping Democrats turn out their base, particularly the make-or-break votes of young, unmarried women.