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SCOTUS: “Partial public employees” and Unions, Hobby Lobby Wins

Two interesting opinions from The Supremes came down the pike today, both decided 5-4.

The first ruling was in Harris v. Quinn, in which a question arose over whether or not private employees that happened to work for the State had to pay union dues:

In an opinion filled with strongly implied invitations to file a new case to go even further, the Supreme Court, dividing five to four, ruled on Monday that public employees cannot routinely be required to join labor unions or to support them by paying dues.  If state or local government workers who oppose unionism take the hint, this new decision may well spawn new lawsuits that could spell doom for organizing those workers for collective action.

What the Court did do specifically was to draw a legal distinction for now between state and local employees that it will consider to be “full-fledged” public workers and workers who will be treated as something less than that — “partial public employees,” such as the workers in this case — for purposes of union organization.  The workers in this case are home health care workers who look after a patient or two in the privacy of a household.

The second was of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobbyin which a question arose over whether or not private companies are mandated to cover certain birth control measures that go against their owner’s belief system:

…[R]egulations issued under the Affordable Care Act require employers to provide their female employees with health insurance that includes no-cost access to twenty different kinds of contraceptives.  The families that own Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are deeply religious and do not want to make four of those twenty kinds of birth control – IUDs and the “morning after” pill — available to their female employees because they believe that it would make them complicit in abortion.  Today the Court agreed that they don’t have to.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a federal law that prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on someone’s ability to practice his religion unless that burden advances an important government interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible.  The Court started by considering and rejecting the federal government’s argument that, because they are for-profit corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga could not even rely on RFRA to challenge the mandate.  That contention, the Court observed, would require the companies to choose between two unpalatable options:  “either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations.”

However, the ruling was a narrow one:

The Court’s opinion made clear that today’s decision was a relatively narrow one.  It does not mean, the Court clarified, that an employer can automatically avoid paying for a particular kind of insurance coverage just because it has religious objections to it.  Thus, for example, the Court explained, employers might still be required to provide coverage for vaccinations – an example that came up at oral argument – even if their religious beliefs might dictate otherwise, because of the need to prevent the spread of contagious and deadly diseases.  Nor, the Court took pains to add, does the decision provide cover for employers to rely on religion to discriminate on the basis of race.

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