Activists Battle Over Religious Freedom at Supreme Court


Read more of our coverage on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases here.

Hundreds of protesters, sharply divided between pro-choice and anti-choice camps, rallied outside the Supreme Court Monday morning to await the Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The case was about exceptions to the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act, but to see and hear the anti-choice protesters gathered in front of the Supreme Court steps, you might have thought the Court was reconsidering Roe v. Wade

“Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go!” chanted protesters from groups including Americans United for Life, Students for Life of America, and the Susan B. Anthony List. “We will abolish abortion,” read some signs. “#TEAMLIFE,” read others, amidst World-Cup-inspired chants of “I believe that we will win!” 

Citing Hobby Lobby’s scientifically disproven claims that Plan B and other emergency contraceptive drugs cause abortion, young anti-choice protesters passionately defended the rights of a fertilized egg, including one that has not yet implanted itself in the womb (the medical definition of a pregnancy). 

“Once conception occurs, that’s the taking of an innocent life,” Missy Martinez, program coordinator at Students for Life, told RH Reality Check. “You read the back of the [Plan B] box, and it says it doesn’t cause an abortion, but then it goes and says it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting.”

Photo via Emily Crockett.

Photo via Emily Crockett.

It turns out that those labels are based on outdated science, and the consensus today is that emergency contraception doesn’t actually prevent implantation. But no matter, anti-choice protesters said—the main point is religious liberty.

“Employers shouldn’t have to pay for [contraception] if it goes against their beliefs,” said one anti-choice protester from Northern Ireland who did not wish to be named. Asked whether a boss’s religious freedom should trump an employee’s, since employees also pay for the insurance plan with their monthly premiums, the young woman said, “That’s difficult. I don’t have the answers. This is why I’m here at the Supreme Court, to see what they decide.” 

Pro-choice people of faith came out to send a different message. “A boss’s religious freedom doesn’t matter more than the religious freedom of his or her employees,” Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told RH Reality Check. 

“Faith leaders in particular need to be speaking out more to tell the truth, and to call falsehood what it is,” Knox said. “It is not true that employers have to pay for birth control. It is true that they’re asking to be able to keep their [employees] from getting the birth control that they need, and that’s morally wrong.”

Photo via Emily Crockett

Photo via Emily Crockett

Sara Lewis, an intern with the National Council of Jewish Women, told RH Reality Check that she’s especially concerned about the ruling because she comes from Ohio, where reproductive health clinics are under political attack. “The Court let me down today,” she said after the ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby came down. 

David Barrows, a Quaker, dressed as a giant Bible to make his pro-choice point about religious liberty. “The pages of the Bible are supposed to inspire people, not oppress them,” he said.

Self-identified members of the “pro-life generation” stood with large banners in front of the Supreme Court steps—an area still protected from protest activity by a buffer zone many times larger than the 35-foot patient safety zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts, which the Court just ruled unconstitutional. When the ruling came down, the anti-choice faction erupted into cheers, chanting, “Hobby Lobby wins!” 

Photo via Emily Crockett.

Photo via Emily Crockett.

Roughly three times as many pro-choice protesters flooded the sidewalks in front of the Court. They wore pink and purple T-shirts and held pre-printed signs reading “Not My Boss’s Business,” or handmade signs featuring the television characters Mr. Burns and Don Draper reading “This guy shouldn’t get to decide about my birth control.” They chanted, “Keep your boardrooms out of our bedrooms” and “It’s a craft store, not a chapel.” They ranged from concerned citizens to members of organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and its Virginia and Maryland affiliates, Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Women’s Health Network. 

A group opposed to the death penalty also protested in front of the Court to commemorate the anniversary of two decisions that reversed, then reinstated, the death penalty in the United States. Activist Emma Stitt said that her group is mixed in its views on abortion, but that she is pro-choice. “If you criminalize abortion, then poor women die. If you have the death penalty, poor men die,” she said. 

And while there was no protest activity around it on the Court steps Monday, poor women who often have trouble affording birth control out-of-pocket were dealt a double blow when the Court weakened public-sector unions in its Harris v. Quinn decision.

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