Op-ed: 'License to Discriminate' Bills Will Keep Coming

The Supreme Court is about to hear two more cases, where the outcomes may have a wider impact than the Arizona law may have had.

BY Eric Ferrero

March 07 2014 4:00 AM ET

What happened in Arizona last week won’t stay in Arizona. In fact, we’ll see it at the U.S. Supreme Court later this month.

The bill that passed both houses of the Arizona legislature and almost became law — until Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it last week — would have allowed companies to deny services to LGBT people based on the business owner’s personal religious beliefs.

To many people, the Arizona bill sounded absurd. But to 50 elected state representatives in Arizona, it sounded like a great idea. To policymakers in a dozen other states, it sounded like a blueprint for other bills and ballot measures, some of which are still pending. And to the United States Supreme Court, it sounded like an interesting question worthy of debate.

That’s the direct line from absurd to outright dangerous.

There is an orchestrated, growing effort in this country to give corporations new rights to discriminate and deny health care coverage based on the religious beliefs of corporate owners. It’s a radical reworking of the balance of rights and liberties we’ve struck for generations in this country, and it could affect millions of people — including LGBT people, women, people with HIV, and others.

So, the defeat of the anti-LGBT bill in Arizona isn’t the end, by a long shot.

At the same time that politicians have introduced legislation in several states to give businesses a free pass to discriminate against LGBT people, in states like Alabama and Missouri, legislators are considering bills that would allow individuals, hospitals, or doctors’ offices to refuse to provide certain health care services if they object to them on religious grounds.

The extreme legislation being debated in the states is alarming, but if the Supreme Court sides with corporations in a pair of cases it will hear March 25, the momentum toward enacting these laws will accelerate.   

The big case before the Supreme Court involves Hobby Lobby, a major corporation with 23,000 employees and $3.3 billion in annual sales from nearly 600 craft stores across the country. (Note to the LGBT crafters among us: Look for other options. I favor Michael’s.) Hobby Lobby’s billionaire owner believes some forms of birth control cause abortion (spoiler alert: they don’t). He wants to use that mistaken belief to be excused from following the federal law that requires all insurance plans to cover birth control just like any other preventive health care — so Hobby Lobby is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to upend generations of legal precedent and treat corporations like churches.

A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby would mean that employers could claim a “religious” excuse for denying their employees insurance coverage for all kinds of medical care, including blood transfusions, vaccines, mental health care, and stem cell treatment.

If Hobby Lobby’s owner gets his way, businesses in America will get to pick and choose which laws to obey. It’s not that hard to imagine a medical center refusing to provide fertility treatment to a lesbian patient or a company refusing to provide insurance coverage for a transgender employee’s medical needs. It’s not that hard to imagine because all of these things have happened in the not-too-distant past (and still happen too often).

This week, a chorus of LGBT, HIV, and women’s groups came together to stand against this dangerous agenda of corporations jostling for a license to discriminate, whether it’s in state legislatures or at the Supreme Court. Some 50 leading organizations issued a joint statement of opposition to these efforts, vowing to fight them together at every turn.

And it will be a fight.

The corporations and politicians pushing this extreme agenda are counting on disguising it as a fight about religious liberty. They are counting on people not seeing what’s at stake and tuning out. But what we saw in Arizona is that when we tune in, when we speak out — we can throw a serious wrench into these efforts. And that’s what we have to keep doing: tune in, follow what’s happening at the Supreme Court and in the states, talk to our friends and family about what’s at stake, make the connections between access to reproductive health care and LGBT equality and — instead of turning back the clock on protections that ensure we all have equal access and opportunities — make sure we keep moving forward together.

 

ERIC FERRERO is the vice president of communications for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

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