After eight months of arguments and deliberation, the Supreme Court will issue its two final decisions on Monday, and both will be significant.
The higher-profile decision will be about the legality of part of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the general religious rights of for-profit corporations.
But the second case has the potential to fundamentally alter the right of public employees to unionize, and has been closely watched by court followers.
In the Obamacare case, the Supreme Court is actually considering two cases that are linked together. In Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius, Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain, and its sister company, Mardel Christian bookstore, want an exemption from a ACA requirement that it provide insurance coverage for morning-after pills and similar emergency birth control methods and devices.
The second case is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Health and Human Services Department. Conestoga is a Mennonite family-owned, profit-making business, and it claims that the ACA’s birth control mandate violates the company’s rights under the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The two cases represent a lot of constitutional issues and touch on other pending cases in the legal pipeline. When the cases were heard at the Court in March, at least 73 other legal challenges were being mounted to parts of the ACA that allegedly violated religious beliefs.
The cases also pose important questions about the scope and effect of RFRA, and the religious rights of for-profit corporations.
Congress passed RFRA in 1993 with the explicit aim of overruling a Supreme Court decision three years earlier called Employment Division v. Smith. It the Smith decision, the Court upheld the power of government at all levels to pass laws that everyone had to obey, even if those laws imposed a burden on the specific religious practice of one sect.
But after Congress passed RFRA, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Act couldn’t be applied to states.
In March, the nine Justices heard about 90 minutes of arguments in the two cases from two familiar names: Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Paul Clement. Both men argued before the Court in 2012 about the Affordable Care Act.
The public unions case is called Harris v. Quinn, comes from Illinois, which recognizes a union for its home health care workers. One of those workers, Pamela Harris, is the lead plaintiff.
At issue are two critical questions. First, can a state actually recognize a union of such workers? And second, do these workers have a First Amendment right to refuse to pay their “fair share” of the cost for union representation?
Illinois began recognizing a public union for its home health care aides 10 years ago. While no one is required to be an official member of the union, they are required to support the costs of collective bargaining on their behalf.
Harris, who cares for her son at home, rejects this precedent, telling NPR, “I object to my home being a union workplace.” She believes that the state cannot be considered her employer and that she is being forced to associate with an organization with whose speech she does not agree.
The stakes could be significant for all public unions if the Court rules that Harris doesn’t have to pay to help support core bargaining activities for the union she doesn’t belong to.
Such a ruling could potentially overturn a 1977 decision called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which set the precedent that a single union could represent a public unit of workers, and that all employees — union members or not in that trade — would have to pay some form of dues.
The Court also rule on narrow terms about the business conditions that apply to home health care aides, and avoid a broader ruling that would overturn or modify the Abood precedent.
Either way, the Harris case will get its fair share of attention on Monday morning.
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