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On their final day to release rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the religious rights of employers who don’t want to provide emergency contraception to employees as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, because the employers believe those forms of birth control cause abortions.
The justices also ruled in favor of health care workers who aren’t union members who care for patients in private homes in Illinois. The health care workers claimed their First Amendment rights would be violated if they are compelled to pay partial union dues.
Legal scholar Emily Bazelon discusses the rulings with Here & Now’s Robin Young. Host Jeremy Hobson also gets reaction on the union ruling from Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Henry says “they are trying to divide us and limit our power,” but added that “no court case is going to stand in the way of home-health care workers coming together.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And there were two big decisions to close out the term of the Supreme Court today. In a few minutes we'll look at how today's ruling for Hobby Lobby effects Obamacare and contraceptive coverage.
YOUNG: But first, Justice Samuel Alito read both 5-4 decisions from the bench, the first in favor of the Illinois Home Health Care Workers, who are public employees but not union members, and they're not full public employees. They objected to being required to pay union fees - they won't have to anymore. The second in favor of for-profit employers who objected on religious grounds to being mandated by the Affordable Care Act to provide their employees with Plan B and other contraception. They won't have to do that either. Let's bring in Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate from the studios at Yale University, where she is a fellow at the Law School. Emily, start with the union case, first. Just explain what it was about.
EMILY BAZELON: This is a case brought by a group of home health aides in Illinois. They're called personal assistants and they work in people's homes who are disabled, helping to care of them and they're paid under Illinois' Medicaid program. They're represented by the SEIU, which has gotten significant wage increases for them through collective bargaining. But a few of them don't want to pay union dues. They say they don't support what the union does. And what the Supreme Court said is, they don't have to pay those dues any more because they have a first amendment right not to support the cause of labor and the SEIU if they don't want to support it.
YOUNG: And just remind us, we've been using the word and hearing a lot the phrase 'partial public employees.' They worked out of homes - I don't know if that goes to the partial part, and you said they don't want to pay the dues. But they are not union members. Explain how it had worked in the past.
BAZELON: Well, you're right. The reason the court has invented this new term, partial public employees, is this idea that these workers who work in people's houses - there had been a question back in the '80s and '90s about whether they were state employees or not, and the Illinois legislature passed a law saying that for the purposes of collective bargaining, they were government employees because otherwise there would be no way for them to organize. The main thrust of the Supreme Court's decision today by a conservative majority of five justices is to reject that rationale. To say that these people are not real public employees, and so for that reason, the people who don't want to pay the union dues don't have to pay the dues, even though they still benefit from the collective bargaining benefits the union has brought them.
YOUNG: Right, and by the way, there are of course all sorts of other union members looking at this. Jeremy is going to be speaking to a union representative in one second. But, what ramifications might this have.
BAZELON: Well, it looks like it sets up the next case for trouble for unions. The court distinguished these - what they called partial public employees - from the regular public sector unions we're used to hearing about: teachers and firefighters and police. And so this decision today does not apply to their unions. The unions will still be able to collect dues from those public employees. But, the rationale that the conservatives bought into suggests that this whole structure of union dues could be very shaky in the future cases.
HOBSON: Well, stand by Emily. Let's get reaction now from Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents publically employed home health care workers. What kind of implications is this going to have?
MARY KAY HENRY: Well, we believe that no court decision is going to stand in the way of home care providers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality care.
HOBSON: So you don't see this as a setback?
HENRY: Well, we know that this is going to have an impact on the strength of our voice in Illinois home care, but we are more determined than ever to work with the state of Illinois and our senior and disabled partners to make sure that we continue to develop new ways, to make sure that workers can join together and increase their wages and delivery quality services.
HOBSON: But this is not the ruling you were hoping for at SEIU, I would assume.
HENRY: No, it wasn't. We were hoping that the court would reaffirm the current model for workers, but just as this model was created when workers were treated as individual contractors and were paid $6 an hour, and now this year they will be up to $13 an hour, we know that we can find another way to make sure that home care providers have the best jobs possible and deliver the best care to seniors and the people we serve in Illinois.
HOBSON: Well, how broad a ruling do you think that this is, especially with this definition of partial public employees.
HENRY: Well, from what we understand as of now, is that the impact is on home care providers in Illinois. It remains to be seen what the other implications of the decision are. But we are going to make sure that we have the backs of the home care providers and the people they serve and continue to work with the state to find a way to continue to strengthen this work, because the senior population is aging every day and the demand for good quality, stable home care work is only going to intensify, so it's more important than ever, Jeremy, that home care workers have a strong voice to advocate for themselves, their families and the people they serve.
HOBSON: That's Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, reacting to today's case. Mary Kay, thank you very much.
HENRY: Thank you.
YOUNG: And that is the first decision today. Jeremy, let's go to the second one with Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate and Yale Law School fellow. And Emily, this one is the ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties were two corporations whose owners objected on religious grounds to providing employees with emergency contraception, like Plan B and the IUD. Writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader called that opinion, which again said that those companies do not have to those contraceptive devices because of their religious beliefs. Justice Bader called that decision a startling breadth to which Justice Kennedy responded the majority decision does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent. So, this is how justices kind of yell at each other, I guess. Emily, just describe for us, more specifically, what was the decision?
BAZELON: Well, the decision as you said, Hobby Lobby does not have to pay for health insurance that its employees want and the reason is that Hobby Lobby has used religious objections to particular forms of it. So Hobby Lobby's off the hook. But the reason it's off the hook is the reason that Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy are having this argument about the breadth of the decision. What the conservative majority said was that they recognize the government has a compelling interest in providing birth control to women because of all the health benefits, but they said that this isn't the least restrictive way for the government to go about providing the health care. And I know that sounds like a strange phrase, but when you're - when Congress passed a law - the law issue here is protecting the religious freedom rights of persons - that was how Congress put it - Congress said that you have these religious rights as long as they don't substantially burden other people and also as long as the government has gone about doing what it wants to do in the least restrictive way. OK. So, here, the government said the least restrictive way was just for the companies to pick up the tab. But the conservatives today say no. The government should be paying itself for this kind of healthcare if employers have religious objections. And the conservative majority of the court pointed to the fact that the Obama administration has in fact already exempted churches and other religious groups from paying for the birth controls. And they basically said that, look, if you accommodated those groups, you can accommodate these religious employers as well.
YOUNG: Well, and the court said that the Obama administration could make this same kind of accommodation that they have for religious oriented, not-for-profits, like Catholic hospitals, that their insurer or a third-party administrator could take on the responsibility of paying. You say in today's case, they said that the government can do it, and by the way, in my excitement I robbed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of her last name. I called her Ruth Bader. They seem to really disagree on this one.
BAZELON: Yes, they do. And what Justice Ginsburg is saying is that it's not up to the Court to tell Congress that the tax payers have to pay for health insurance with birth control. That this is a very supported by evidence part of Obamacare, in which it's clear what the health benefits are for women of contraception and health insurance that pays for contraception, and that Congress should be able to tell companies to pay for it. Because even if they have religious objections, their female employees also have the right to this birth control, and so it's not clear that the religious objections necessarily should get to win when you have this kind of two competing sets of rights. But that position did not carry the day today. Instead this idea that the government can just - that the tax payers can pay for the birth control coverage instead - that's where we ended up.
YOUNG: Emily Bazelon of Slate and Yale Law School, thanks so much.
BAZELON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.