Gay rights groups wary of Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling

Minority GroupsLaws and LegislationCourts and the JudiciarySocial IssuesJustice SystemDiscriminationBusiness
Some gay rights activists fear Hobby Lobby ruling will inspire challenges to anti-discrimination laws
Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling is based on federal law and probably won't affect state anti-bias laws

Gay rights groups voiced cautious optimism Tuesday that this week's Supreme Court decision exempting some corporations from offering contraceptive coverage for female workers will not trigger a widespread assault on same-sex benefits or anti-discrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians in the workplace.

But advocates emphasized that the full impact of the high court ruling, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized in her dissent as one of "startling breadth," may not be known for years to come.

"The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community watched this decision with bated breath," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay advocacy group in Washington, in a blog on its website. She said religious beliefs had long been used to deny gays "basic human rights."

But she said the narrowly drawn opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., went out of its way to draw a distinction between the healthcare coverage at issue and potential discrimination in hiring, where gays are particularly vulnerable. Alito said the decision did not "provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice."

In Monday's 5-4 ruling, the conservative majority found in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores that the devout Christian owners of the arts and crafts chain had the right under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to refuse to offer the full contraceptive coverage mandated under President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Critics of the decision say they remain worried that other family-owned, religiously oriented corporations might make the same argument to justify discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Although Alito seemed to rule out using religious objections to justify racial discrimination in the workplace, Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel with the Lambda Legal advocacy group in Los Angeles, noted that he omitted any reference to discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, potentially leaving the door slightly open to a conservative challenge.

"Could a religious employer claim a religious freedom to not hire transgender people?" Pizer asked. "I think we will see that argument. To say you have to accommodate a company's religious beliefs in any context, that's a recipe for an enormous amount of discrimination."

Others were less worried. Gay rights advocates said they did not think the decision would enable a challenge to Obama's promised executive orders barring discrimination against gays and transgender people by federal contractors.

And because the Hobby Lobby decision is based on federal law, it applies only to federal mandates, not state laws and local ordinances.

Sexual orientation is not included in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employers and businesses from discriminating against people based on race, sex, color or national origin. Instead, most of the nation's strongest gay rights measures have been passed at the state level.

Twenty states, including California and Illinois, have laws forbidding employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation, and those state laws will probably be unaffected by Monday's ruling.

The Supreme Court in 1997 limited the reach of the federal religious freedom law and said it did not apply to state measures. So employers may not cite the Hobby Lobby ruling as giving them a religious exemption from state anti-bias laws.

At the same time, the court has given signs it is unwilling to grant businesses a constitutional right to discriminate against gays.

The clearest example came in April when the justices turned down an appeal from a New Mexico photographer who was charged with violating the state's anti-discrimination law. Elaine Huguenin had refused to shoot a wedding album for a same-sex couple and cited her religious beliefs. In her appeal, she argued she had a free-speech right to choose her subjects for photos.

The case had drawn widespread attention because it clearly posed the question of whether the 1st Amendment could give people or businesses an exemption from serving gay customers. But without comment or dissent, the court denied the appeal.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Minority GroupsLaws and LegislationCourts and the JudiciarySocial IssuesJustice SystemDiscriminationBusiness
  • White House intruder arrested after entering front doors
    White House intruder arrested after entering front doors

    An intruder scaled a White House fence and made it all the way into the building Friday evening before he was caught and wrestled to the ground by security officers, the Secret Service said. President Obama and his family had already left for Camp David when the incident occurred.

  • Man who killed daughter and grandchildren had violent past
    Man who killed daughter and grandchildren had violent past

    Don Spirit, a Florida grandfather who fatally shot his daughter Sarah Lorraine Spirit and six grandchildren before killing himself, had a long history of domestic violence — at one point pushing his pregnant daughter against a refrigerator and assaulting and threatening his former...

  • Rain pounds Texas: A sign the drought is ending?
    Rain pounds Texas: A sign the drought is ending?

    In Texas, where the governor once urged the public to pray for rain, this week’s torrential storms might finally be a sign of lasting relief for the state plagued by years of drought. Or maybe not.

  • For many in Congress, a first test on issues of war
    For many in Congress, a first test on issues of war

    Lawmakers' votes this week on whether or not to train and equip Syrian opposition forces in the fight against Islamic State were arguably the most consequential after nearly two years in which Congress is likely to set a new low for productivity.

  • Egyptian militant admits links to 1998 U.S. embassy bombings

    A longtime Egyptian militant with ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden admitted in federal court Friday that he had links to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, a surprise guilty plea that the judge sharply questioned because it reduces his prison time from a potential life sentence to...

  • Four takeaways from the vote in Congress to arm Syrian rebels
    Four takeaways from the vote in Congress to arm Syrian rebels

    What was supposed to be a no-drama final session of Congress before the campaign season turned into anything but as President Obama's new strategy to combat the threat from Islamic State resulted in a wrenching vote that is likely to reverberate through the midterm election and...