The Supreme Court on Monday struck two more welcome blows for the rights of individuals by curbing Obamacare's requirement that all employers must provide certain kinds of contraceptive coverage to women employees, and by ruling that home health care givers may not be required to pay union dues. The decisions rightly say that the individual rights of free speech and religious belief trump government rationales for coercive policies.
But unlike the court's unanimous decisions last week forcing police to obtain a court order before accessing a suspect's cell phone and rejecting President Barack Obama's attempt to ignore the Senate in making appointments, Monday's ruling came on a pair of 5-4 votes.
In both cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has so often cast the decisive vote, did so again by siding with the court's four conservatives.
The decisions were strongly contested by the court's four liberal justices.
Of the two opinions, the one likely to have the broadest reach is Harris v. Quinn, rejecting an Illinois law requiring home health care workers to pay dues to a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - even if they are not members of the union. A number of states reported to be considering similar laws will now have to reconsider.
But the other decision, known as Hobby Lobby, although narrowly focused, has excited the most comment for understandable reasons. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates that health insurance for women must cover "preventive care and screenings" at no additional cost.
Regulations written by the Department of Health and Human Services include, under this heading, four treatments known as abortifacients that act after conception to terminate pregnancies.
After much debate, HHS exempted religious employers, such as churches, and religious non-profit organizations, from the regulations. But it left them in force for other organizations, including for-profit companies. Two closely held companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, sued to be exempt from a requirement that offended the religious beliefs of the owners.
The court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, said the government could not require corporations closely held by individuals with strong religious beliefs to act against those beliefs.
Despite its controversial subject matter, the ruling will have only a marginal effect on the Affordable Care Act.
But the Harris v. Quinn opinion, also by Justice Alito, turns the court away from 60 years of decisions supporting union shops and mandatory dues, and looks in the direction of right-to-work laws. Given the huge burden of public service union contracts on the finances of many states and municipalities, the decision moves this essentially political debate in a healthy direction.
Last week's unanimous "liberty" rulings might have led optimistic observers to anticipate a growing comity on the court.
Unfortunately, Monday's 5-4 margins say otherwise.
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