Wisconsin will no longer enforce the state’s contraception benefit rule for employers with religious objections, because of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling.
On Monday, a spokesperson from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration told the conservative website Media Trackers that Wisconsin will no longer require employers to follow the state law mandating coverage. Current state law in Wisconsin mandates that companies with insurance plans covering certain services, like outpatient care, preventive treatment, and prescription drugs, must also cover contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by a health-care provider.
In its ruling last month, the Supreme Court used the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to argue that the contraceptive coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act violates the religious rights of certain companies.
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J.P. Wieske, a representative with the state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, alluded to the Supreme Court ruling in justifying Wisconsin’s decision, saying that the Hobby Lobby decision “supersedes state statute.”
Reproductive rights advocates and pro-choice politicians in the state argue that Wisconsin Republicans are misunderstanding and incorrectly applying the ruling. In a letter to the Commission of Insurance, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization that represents the “views of American freethinkers,” said that “gutting mandatory contraceptive coverage is not required by the Hobby Lobby decision, as any staunch states’ rights defender must know.”
State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) agrees, telling local reporters that “Hobby Lobby concerned the interpretation of federal law. It does not impact our state laws. … [Walker] had no authority to unilaterally decide that this administration is not going to enforce a law passed democratically through the Legislature.”
Gov. Walker and the Republican-controlled state legislature has in the past tried to repeal the state’s law requiring contraceptive coverage, known as the Contraceptive Equity law. For example, in 2011, shortly after taking office, Walker added a provision to his budget proposal that would have repealed the Contraceptive Equity law, which was passed in 2009; the provision was eventually stripped from the budget. In 2013, the legislature proposed AB 215, which would have created an exemption for religious organizations.
Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the author of the letter, says that the “failure to enforce this mandate has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with imposing conservative religious beliefs on women.”
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.
In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’smanufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.
That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.
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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby andZubik v. Burwell.
“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.
Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.
In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.
The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.
But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.
“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”
This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workersv. Johnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”
The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.
Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.
The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.
As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”
But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.
In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.
Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.
In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.
Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t? The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”
Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.
By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.
The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.
If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.
1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”
“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.
That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball Statemade it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.
Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.
But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.
“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”
This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.
State legislatures came into session in January and quickly focused on a range of sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. By the end of the first quarter, legislators in 45 states had introduced 1,021 provisions. Of the 411 abortion restrictions that have been introduced so far this year, 17 have passed at least one chamber, and 21 have been enacted in five states (Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Utah).
This year’s legislative sessions are playing out on a crowded stage. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case involving a package of abortion restrictions in Texas; that decision, when handed down in June, could reshape the legal landscape for abortion at the state level. Moreover, just as state legislatures were hitting their stride in late March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised the labeling for mifepristone, one of the two drugs used for medication abortion. That decision immediately put the issue back on the front burner by effectively counteracting policies restricting access to medication abortion in a handful of states. (Notably, the Arizona legislature moved within days to enact a measure limiting the impact of the FDA decision in the state.)
Progress on Several Fronts
Despite the ongoing attention to restricting abortion, legislators in several states are looking to expand access to sexual and reproductive health services and education. By the end of the first quarter, legislators in 32 states had introduced 214 proactive measures; of these, 16 passed at least one legislative body, and two have been enacted. (This is nearly the same amount introduced in the year 2015, when 233 provisions were introduced.)
Although the proactive measures introduced this year span a wide range of sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, three approaches have received particular legislative attention:
Allowing a 12-month contraceptive supply. Legislators in 16 states have introduced measures to allow pharmacists to dispense a year’s supply of contraceptives at one time; these bills would also require health plans to reimburse for a year’s supply provided at once. (In addition, a bill pending in Maryland would cover a six-month supply.) Legislative chambers in three states (Hawaii, New York, and Washington) have approved measures. Similar measures are in effect in Oregon and the District of Columbia.
Easing contraceptive access through pharmacies. Legislators in 12 states have introduced measures to allow pharmacists to prescribe and dispense hormonal contraceptives. As of March 31, bills have been approved by at least one legislative chamber in Hawaii and Iowa and enacted in Washington. The measures in Hawaii and Iowa would require pharmacist training, patient counseling, and coverage by insurance; the Hawaii measure would apply only to adults, while the Iowa measure would apply to both minors and adults. The new Washington law directs the state’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission to develop a notice that will be displayed at a pharmacy that prescribes and dispenses self-administered hormonal contraception. Under current state law, a pharmacy may prescribe and dispense these contraceptives under a collaborative practice agreement with an authorized prescriber. Oregon has a similar measure in effect. (California, the only other state with such a law, issued regulations in early April.)
Expanding education on sexual coercion. Measures are pending in 17 states to incorporate education on dating violence or sexual assault into the sex or health education provided in the state. A bill has been approved by one legislative chamber in both New Hampshire and New York. The measure approved by the New Hampshire Senate would require age-appropriate education on child sexual abuse and healthy relationships for students from kindergarten through grade 12. The measure approved by the New York Senate would mandate education on child sexual abuse for students from kindergarten through grade 8. And finally, in March, Virginia enacted a comprehensive new law requiring medically accurate and age-appropriate education on dating violence, sexual assault, healthy relationships, and the importance of consensual sexual activity for students from kindergarten through grade 12. Virginia will join 21 other states that require instruction on healthy relationships.
Ongoing Assault on Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Services
Even as many legislators are working to expand access to services, others are continuing their now years-long assault on sexual and reproductive health services and rights. Restricting access to abortion continues to garner significant attention. However, last year’s release of a series of deceptively edited sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood has swept both the family planning safety net and biomedical research involving fetal tissue into the fray.
Abortion bans. Legislative attempts to ban abortion fall along a broad continuum, from measures that seek to ban all or most abortions to those aimed at abortions performed after the first trimester of pregnancy or those performed for specific reasons.
Banning all or most abortions. Legislators in nine states have introduced measures to ban all or most abortions in the state, generally by either granting legal “personhood” to a fetus at the moment of conception or prohibiting abortions at or after six weeks of pregnancy. Only one of these measures, a bill in Oklahoma that would put performing an abortion outside the bounds of professional conduct by a physician, has been approved by a legislative chamber.
Banning D&E abortions. Legislators in 13 states have introduced measures to ban the most common technique used in second-trimester abortions. Of these, a bill in West Virginia was enacted in March over the veto of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D). A similar measure was approved by both houses of the Mississippi legislature and is being considered by a conference committee. (Kansas and Oklahoma enacted similar laws last year, but enforcement of both has been blocked by court action.)
Banning abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization. South Dakota and Utah both enacted measures seeking to block abortions at 20 weeks during the first quarter of the year. The new South Dakota law explicitly bans abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization (which is equivalent to 22 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period). The Utah measure requires the use of anesthesia for the fetus when an abortion is performed at or after that point, something that providers would be extremely unlikely to do because of the increased risk to the woman’s health. In addition to these new measures, 12 other states ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization.
Banning abortion for specific reasons. In March, Indiana enacted a sweeping measure banning abortions performed because of gender, race, national origin, ancestry, or fetal anomaly; no other state has adopted such a broad measure. The Oklahoma House approved a measure to ban abortion in the case of a fetal genetic anomaly; the state already bans abortion for purposes of sex selection. Currently, seven states ban abortion for the purpose of gender selection, including one state that also bans abortion based on race selection and one that also bans abortion due to fetal genetic anomaly.
Family planning funding restrictions. In the wake of the Planned Parenthood videos, several states have sought to limit funding to family planning health centers that provide or refer for abortion or that are affiliated with abortion providers. These efforts are taking different forms across states.
Medicaid. Measures to exclude abortion providers (e.g., Planned Parenthood affiliates) from participating in Medicaid have been introduced in five states, despite the clear position of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that such exclusions are not permitted under federal law. In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a Medicaid restriction into law. By the end of the first quarter, measures had passed one chamber of the legislature in Arizona, Mississippi, and Missouri; a measure introduced in Washington has not been considered. (A related measure enacted in Wisconsin in February limits reimbursement for contraceptive drugs for Medicaid recipients.)
Similar attempts by six other states have been blocked by court action since 2010. These measures include laws adopted by Indiana and Arizona as well as administrative actions taken in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
Other family planning funds. Legislators in 13 states have introduced measures to prevent state or federal funds that flow through state agencies from being distributed to organizations that provide, counsel, or refer for abortions; the measures would also deny funds to any organization affiliated with an entity engaging in these activities. Measures in three of these states have received significant legislative attention. In February, Wisconsin enacted a measure directing the state to apply for Title X funds (the state is not currently a grantee under the program); if the state’s application were approved, the measure would ban this funding from going to organizations that engage in abortion care-related activity. A measure that would deny funds to organizations engaged in abortion care-related activity passed the Kentucky Senate in February. A similar measure in Virginia, which would both prohibit an abortion provider from receiving funding and give priority to public entities (such as health centers operated by health departments) in the allocation of state family planning funds was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in March.
Related funds. In February, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a measure barring abortion providers or their affiliates from receiving federal funds passing through the state treasury to support breast and cervical cancer screening; sex education; and efforts to prevent infertility, HIV in minority communities, violence against women, and infant mortality.
Fetal tissue research. The Planned Parenthood videos have also led to legislation in 28 states aimed at research involving fetal tissue. Measures have passed one legislative chamber in four states (Alabama, Iowa, Idaho, and Kentucky), and new laws have been enacted in four states (Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and South Dakota) in the first quarter alone. All four laws ban the donation of fetal tissue for purposes of research. These new laws are the first to ever ban the donation of fetal tissue. The Arizona law also bans research using fetal tissue, and the new South Dakota law strengthens the state’s existing ban by now considering fetal tissue research as a felony; four other states (Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma) have similar provisions in effect.
Zohra Ansari-Thomas, Olivia Cappello, and Lizamarie Mohammed all contributed to this analysis.