Star Tribune of Minneapolis, June 30
Women's rights dealt a blow by Hobby Lobby decision
In the name of freedom of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday extended the reach of employers' religious beliefs into working Americans' lives. Its 5-4 ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby was a blow to women's reproductive rights and to the Affordable Care Act's preventive-care coverage requirement.
The decision also gave the meaning of freedom of religion a perverse twist. While the Constitution forbids government from imposing religion on Americans, the high court's majority found nothing objectionable about bosses imposing their religious tenets on employee health insurance benefits, regardless of those employees' religious views.
On its face, the 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision may have been confined to contraception coverage under the ACA. In effect, it creates a new religion-based exclusion for family-owned corporations from the ACA requirement that preventive medical coverage be covered in full by the insurance packages that large employers provide.
That's bad enough, especially for those who work for employers who consider some or all forms of contraception sinful. Those employees are free to buy contraception themselves, of course. But for low-wage workers at employers like Hobby Lobby, that cost burden can be substantial — and unfair.
But Monday's ruling also seems likely to encourage corporations to challenge other federal laws on religious grounds. The majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito seeks to minimize that possibility. Alito cast Hobby Lobby as a narrow decision rooted in a 1993 federal law, which he said trumped the ACA in part because the ACA exempts religious institutions from its contraceptive coverage mandate. Having made that exception, government could and should make another for religiously motivated for-profit corporations, Alito wrote.
Yet Alito's insistence that for-profit corporations are persons under the law seems to invite more "personal" freedom claims by employers — though Alito specified that religion won't pass muster as a federal tax dodge. As for other laws employers find burdensome and can tie to religion, it appears to be open season in the nation's federal courts — or so fretted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the four-justice minority.
Defenders of women's rights reacted to the ruling with understandable outrage. Allowing an employer to refuse to cover a health service as basic — and as plainly preventive — as contraception or allowing an employer to choose which type of contraception merits coverage reverts to an earlier, darker age in attitudes about women's role in reproduction. Women have reason to be alarmed that the court majority did not give more weight to the health benefits of preventing unwanted pregnancies.
But Americans for whom childbearing is not a personal issue also have reason for concern about the Hobby Lobby ruling. It fits a recent Supreme Court pattern of decisions that favor business interests over competing concerns. Alito's corporate personhood treatise in Monday's decision is reminiscent of Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the 2010 Citizens United case, which opened a floodgate of corporate spending on political campaigns in the name of freedom of speech.
Americans prize their constitutional guarantees of freedom from government interference with speech and thought. It will be a shame if the branch of government entrusted to safeguard those freedoms is remembered as the one that gave a green light to more corporate interference in those very realms.
Albert Lea Tribune, July 2
Much ado about contraceptives
Talk about overreach.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday 5-4 that "closely held" (read: family-owned) for-profit corporations could opt out of the contraceptives portion of the employees' health care plans offered under the Affordable Care Act.
It was a narrow ruling, in that it was a small aspect of a widespread law regarding the entire health care industry.
But the shrill reaction by supporters and opponents of contraceptives is out of hand. They have made the overreach. One side is making it seem like women now have to return to being barefoot and pregnant while the other side seems like, well, women have to return to being barefoot and pregnant. It must be a bad and a good thing, depending on the political persuasion of the protester.
One side has been quick to portray the Obama administration was way off base with Obamacare all because of the contraceptives provision. It's like they are ready to take this narrow ruling and win over a generation of Americans, even though Obamacare has been upheld by this very same Supreme Court. The other side is as mad as hornets, as though one minor loss after a long string of victories is the end of America as we know it.
By any standard, the decision could have been worse for either side. After all, the Obama administration already allowed exemptions for religious nonprofit organization. This ruling only expands that for some companies, and the federal government might end up picking up the contraceptives tab for those employees anyway.
The Supreme Court's conservative side could have ruled to wipe out coverage of all contraceptives. But it didn't. It found what appears to be a happy medium between the new law and its interpretation of religious freedom found in the First Amendment.
The greater issue is not about contraception at all. It's the notion that a corporation has religious beliefs. The ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, even reinforces the long-held legal stance that a corporation is a fictional entity. So now fictional entities have religion? As silly as that notion may seem to some people, it is near and dear to others. Debate over rights, no matter the side, are nothing to scoff at.
On one hand, why allow fictional entities formed primarily to prevent personal liability in group, for-profit endeavors the same rights as individual people? After all, these fictional entities don't go to prison like individual people, and the Constitution's preamble says in big letters, "We the people." On the other hand, if you formed a company, would you want to give up the rights you had as an individual? Probably not. They view the company as a group method for their personal decisions and actions. So it's a tough line to draw.
The debate over whether corporations have the same rights as people — corporate personhood — is one of the major arguments of our age. The Citizens United vs. FEC ruling in January 2010 only got the ball rolling. It will be interesting to see where the ball stops.
The Free Press of Mankato, June 29
Are we drugging our water?
Emphasizing the importance of agriculture, efforts such as Farm to Table work on getting our youth - and adults who should know better - to appreciate the work of farmers who put bountiful food on our tables.
Just pulling a carrot from the ground, washing it off and then eating it gets us a lot closer to appreciate nature and its value.
Now if we can just do the same for drinking water.
In an extensive national survey involving 118 wells in Minnesota, researchers found that about one third of them contained antibiotics, detergents or other contaminants. The statewide survey was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
These chemicals, suspected of coming from landfills, septic systems and sewage treatment plants, were not found in surface waters but rather in the deep aquifers of our state.
We hasten to say that no chemicals found exceeded present drinking water quality standards but in some cases, certain antibiotics, antihistamines and flame-retardants that were found have no standards.
Not surprisingly, the source of these contaminants comes from us - consumers using prescription and over-the-counter medicines, lotions, detergents, and plastic-making ingredients.
And it comes from manufacturers. For instance, plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and lotions don't break down and get into our waterways.
In a report by Minnesota Public Radio, the 118 wells tested are among those the MPCA monitors regularly, and they were chosen because of their assumed vulnerability to this kind of contamination, said Sharon Kroening, research scientist at the MPCA. Some were in the Twin Cities area, some near St. Cloud and others in north central, northwestern and southeastern Minnesota.
The report hypothesizes that these chemicals are coming from a number of different sources including wastewater systems, agricultural and storm runoffs and leaking municipal sewer lines.
This report is not meant to ring any alarm bells but clearly it means we as consumers need to be more aware of not just what we consume but how we dispose of our consumables.
One of the authors noted that we could be making better choices on such things as lotions. "Do we really need one that has a fragrance?"
More to the point, however, is how we dispose of our products, especially prescription medicines.
The city of Mankato has a drug drop box available 24-hours a day at the Public Safety Center for disposal of prescription and non-prescription medications. Another is located at the Blue Earth County Justice Center. Both points collected 2,664 pounds in the last year.
Just as food doesn't come from grocery stores, water doesn't come from bubblers. We need to be more aware of our impact on the water supply to ensure it remains healthy for all of us to consume.