When a case lands in the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s rarely as simple as, say, enforcing a claim to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, or a claim to access to firearms under the Second.
It’s often about balancing competing, legitimate claims to a right. When one man’s right enfringes on another’s, someone needs to decide which right, given the Constitution and the circumstances, will prevail … and why. You might never have heard of Zechariah Chafee, but he might have the best description of the need to balance competing rights: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
We note this difficult task the justices are asked to perform because, of course, we feel the need to raise questions about some of their recent choices.
For example, the court earlier this week bestowed on companies religious protections in a case involving a requirement to provide health insurance that includes birth control coverage for women. Some companies – which depends on how you read the ruling – no longer need to provide the coverage. The decision extends a recent trend to extend constitutional rights that everyone agrees are held by individuals to business entities, too.
Set aside the question of whether a company can legitimately exert a claim to the free exercise of religious beliefs. There were other stakeholders in the case: women who can no longer decide for themselves which contraceptives are best for them.
And that’s where the Supreme Court decisions start to make us uncomfortable. The preference for the assertion of religious rights through a business over the rights of those women employees seems to strike the wrong balance.
Same for the decision earlier in June about the exclusion zone for protesters around clinics where abortions are performed. No one doubts that the protesters have free-speech rights. But do they have the right to express that speech in the faces of women entering the clinic? Isn’t it enough that they can stand 10 yards away and express their views? The finding that a 35-foot buffer was too restrictive for the free speech of the protesters, at the cost of infringing on the women approaching the clinic also seems … unbalanced.
There seems to be a pattern: protection of rights for the institution over those of the individual. It seems to us that protections for corporations are fine … but protections for people come first. And we fear the court is shifting that balance in the wrong direction.