Hobby Lobby and the Electoral Fallout of Religious Exemptions

Last month’s Hobby Lobby decision about corporations’ religious exemptions from certain contraception coverage pushed a conversation about women’s and reproductive rights. Women’s groups and others argued that the decision would mean reproductive health would be threatened by corporate interests and government action.

The issue was a topic of a panel at Netroots Nation 2014—a progressive political action and organizing conference held this year in Detroit. The panel titled, “Religious Exemptions: The Next Frontier for Progressive Battles” included participants from a variety of women’s organizations including GetEQUAL, Catholics for Choice, and others. The panel began with a discussion of the Hobby Lobby case, but very quickly expanded to religious exemptions generally.

Erin Matson of RH Reality Check argued the issue was about more than religious exemptions. She argued it was about “religious refusal…discrimination, and social justice.” Her co-panelists expanded on this argument, exploring what Hobby Lobby and other similar efforts would mean for access to HIV testing, genetic testing, labor organizing, school bullying, etc. Meghan Smith of Catholics for Choice summed up what many in the panel and many in the audience believed: “religious exemptions disproportionately affected those most marginalized among us.”

Those concerns eventually segued into the kind of call for action one would expect at a conference focused on political activism and organization. Matson declared that progressives “are losing this battle…big time.” Heather Cronk of GetEQUAL discussed the best ways to organize around the issue noting that progressives “are too sanctimonious, feeling they know better than the right, and then [progressives] lose.”

Many may argue that such stark predictions about the effects of Hobby Lobby or other religious exemptions will not come to pass. However, the predictive value of the panelists’ comments is not the important takeaway. Messaging and strategy are critical.

Progressives will use (likely effectively) the Hobby Lobby decision as a means of organizing in a variety of communities. The arguments on this panel included warnings for women, progressives of faith, the labor community, sexual minorities, and racial minorities. Religious exemptions will be a serious election-year issue in 2014 and especially in 2016. As progressives refine messaging on the issue, they will have a real opportunity to spur higher levels of turnout among reliably Democratic segments of the population.

What’s more, as conservative legal groups continue efforts like the ones in the Hobby Lobby case, federal courts will be forced to figure out the boundaries of the recent Supreme Court decision. The manner in which federal courts proceed will either quell the fears of progressive activists or pour gasoline on the fires of their political and policy passions.

Hobby Lobby will have far reaching political and electoral implications for both the left and the right. Ultimately, the political conversation surrounding the decision will likely expand beyond contraception coverage, and progressive activists are prepared for what they see as a worst case scenario. If they are correct, Republican and conservative efforts to expand their appeal among women, among Latinos, among gays and lesbians may be blunted by the praise they have heaped on the Hobby Lobby ruling.