Add this to the good news/bad news mix from the Supreme Court's healthcare decision: Because of the good news (Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act), we get the bad news that his standing among the nation's Democrats has significantly increased. This collective amnesia about who John Roberts is and what he has done is disturbing, especially since the direction of the Court is one of the most important issues upon which Democrats should be voting in November.
A new Gallup Poll shows wild fluctuations in Democrats and Republicans' assessment of Chief Justice John Roberts since their last poll in 2005, a change Gallup attributes to his role in upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts' approval rating among Republicans has plummeted 40 percentage points from 2005, falling from 67% to 27%. In contrast, his favorability among Democrats has risen from 35% to 54%. That the healthcare decision is a catalyst of this change is supported by a PEW Research Center poll last week showing that between April and July, approval of the Supreme Court dropped 18 points among Republicans and rose 12% among Democrats.
Yes, John Roberts upheld the ACA, but only as a tax. At the same time, he agreed with his four far right compatriots that it fell outside the authority granted Congress by the Commerce Clause, leaving many observers concerned that he has set traps designed to let the Court later strike down congressional legislation that should in no way be considered constitutionally suspect. He also joined the majority that restricted Congress's constitutional authority under the Spending Clause to define the contours of state programs financed with federal funds.
Just as importantly, Roberts's upholding the ACA does not erase the past seven years, during which he has repeatedly been part of thin conservative majority decisions bending the law beyond recognition in order to achieve a right wing political result. John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a number of disastrous decisions, including those that:
Oh, and then there's that little 5-4 Citizens United opinion that has upended our nation's electoral system and put our government up to sale to the highest bidder.
With a rap sheet like that – and this is hardly a complete a list – no one should be under the illusion that John Roberts is anything but a right-wing ideologue using the Supreme Court to cement his favorite right-wing policies into law.
Next term, Roberts is expected to lead the judicial front of the Republican Party's war against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Whether he succeeds may depend on whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who fills the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.
To no one's surprise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected President Obama's compromise that respects both the rights of women to contraception and the religious liberty of employers who are affiliated with religious organizations opposed to birth control. Under the compromise, church-affiliated organizations will not be paying for contraception, and insurance carriers will bear the cost of providing it to women without a co-pay or deductible. The Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities quickly announced that their concerns had been addressed, and that their religious liberty would not be impaired by the modified rules. Some Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are similarly satisfied.
Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates, are declaring that the compromise is part of a larger war against religious liberty. Senate Republicans are even suggesting that the birth control coverage requirement threatens the religious liberty of employers completely unconnected to religious organizations. But since these forces have so often similarly and wrongly categorized many government policies they disagree with, it is hard to take the claim seriously.
Religious liberty is one of the core protections of the United States Constitution, one whose importance cannot be overstated. And there are times when it may be proper to allow certain religious-based exemptions from generally applicable laws, such as conscientious objector status in a military context. But those are the exceptions, not the rule: We generally do not give people the right to be exempt from laws they disapprove of simply because their disapproval is religiously based.
In the current debate over health insurance, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and its partners use the language of universal religious liberty. But their February 10 news release explaining why they oppose the coverage requirement makes clear that they are making this claim only for the religious liberty of people who share their specific religious beliefs about contraception and abortion:
First, we objected to the rule forcing private health plans — nationwide, by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen—to cover sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. ...
Second, we explained that the mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such "services" immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of "religious employers" that HHS proposed to exempt initially.
Their statement was notably silent about conscience protections for other religious beliefs. They have not been talking about the right of employers from denominations that generally reject modern medical intervention to not provide their employees health insurance at all. Matthew Yglesias asked in a blog post this week if they would rush to the defense of an employer named Abdul Hussain who refused on religious reasons to offer employees health insurance that lets employees visit doctors of the opposite sex. If you really thought the principle of religious liberty was at stake, would you be satisfied with a fix that addresses only your religious beliefs but ignores everyone else's?
Whether it's contraception, marriage equality, or abortion, "religious liberty" has too often been used as a feint to disguise an aggressive demand for special rights. Specifically, the radical right regularly demands exemptions for conservative Christians and those who share their beliefs from laws they don't like.
Even when they promote "conscience" legislation with broad language that seems to be applicable to all religious beliefs, their selectivity in demanding such laws is telling. For instance, the "conscience" provisions in marriage equality legislation are generally expressed in general terms not specific to gays and lesbians' marriages, but those provisions are only inserted into state law when gays and lesbians are finally allowed to marry. Such provisions were being pushed last year in Maryland, for instance, but when the marriage equality bill failed to pass, self-proclaimed religious liberty proponents on the right made no effort to adopt the conscience provisions that would then have only affected opposite-sex married couples. Nor are right-wing groups loudly demanding such religious liberty provisions in states with DOMA-style laws like Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah. In states like these, where marriage rights for same-sex couples are foreclosed, the right is not demanding the type of "conscience" provisions for groups not providing services to married couples that they demand in states where gays can marry. In cases like these, what they claim is a general religious liberty protection is clearly designed to hurt one group and one group only.
Consider the irony of right-wing groups who crusade against what they call "special rights" for LGBT people demanding statutory exemptions solely for their own particular religious beliefs. Can there be a better example of demanding "special rights?"