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Hobby Lobby: Supreme Court decision fans flames of culture war

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling gives both sides an issue around which to mobilize voters as midterms loom. But Democrats might get a bigger boost.

Washington — In its ruling Monday on the contraception mandate in Obamacare, the Supreme Court has lit a new spark in the nation’s long-standing culture war. The impact is likely to be felt immediately in midterm election campaigns, in state legislatures, and in Congress.

The high court ruled 5-to-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that family-held private corporations can opt out of offering some forms of birth control in employee health plans, based on the business owners’ religious objections. In this case, the owners of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby say that the birth control methods in question — two forms of morning-after pill and two types of intra-uterine device – can cause early abortions.

As with gay marriage, the Hobby Lobby case presented a clash of interests between religious conservatives and those with a more secular view of how social issues should be addressed in public policy. Both sides can be expected to use the case to engage their voters.

“The issues in the Hobby Lobby case are classic base mobilization issues — on both sides,” says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

“On the Democratic side, pro-choice and health-care advocates may be motivated to participate more extensively in the midterm elections; and on the Republican side, pro-life and opponents of Obamacare may be motivated as well.”  

But Mr. Green suggests that Democrats may get the bigger political boost, since Republicans already tend to be more engaged by midterms than Democrats.

Still, Republicans expressed satisfaction over the Hobby Lobby ruling, both as a “victory for religious freedom” and as a slam against Obamacare.

“Today’s decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a statement, alluding to last week’s Supreme Court ruling that disallowed an aggressive use of recess appointments by President Obama.

“The president’s health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy,” Speaker Boehner added. “We must repeal it and enact better solutions that start with lowering Americans’ health care costs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama believes that the decision “jeopardizes the health of women employed by these companies.” But Mr. Earnest added that the administration will respect the ruling and look for ways to help women have “more, not less, say over their personal health decisions,” including working through Congress.

If conservatives were satisfied by Hobby Lobby, reproductive rights activists were outraged, calling the decision the latest strike in the so-called “war on women.” They promised to put the issue front and center in the fall midterms.

“This will be a main conversation point in 2014,” says Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Before the ruling, the political arm of Planned Parenthood had already pledged to spend $3 million in the North Carolina Senate race, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is locked in a tough reelection fight against Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the state House. Under Speaker Tillis, the legislature has approved new restrictions on abortion clinics in the state.

“I do think [the right to health care] is very much on the minds of women voters,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a conference call with reporters.  

Ms. Richards notes that in the last few election cycles, it is the women’s vote that has made the difference for many candidates, from the presidential election to Senate races to last November’s race for governor in Virginia. Democratic pollsters point to single women in particular as a key part of their party’s base. Access to reproductive health care is a big issue for them, pollsters say.

Even though the Hobby Lobby ruling applied only to closely held private corporations, liberal activists expressed concern that the decision could open a Pandora’s box for other corporations to challenge other laws on the religious freedom grounds.

In state legislatures, where abortion foes are already trying to restrict access to the procedure, the Hobby Lobby ruling may encourage more activism. In Ohio, lawmakers held a hearing earlier this month on legislation that would prohibit health insurance plans from covering abortion even if a woman’s life is in danger, and would also ban certain forms of birth control.

On the Democratic side, the national Senate campaign committee drew a line between Monday’s ruling and efforts to hold onto the Senate in November. In a statement, the committee raised the drive for “personhood” legislation – which states that life begins at conception – as a particular threat to “popular forms of birth control,” and cited support by GOP Senate candidates.

Emily’s List, a major fundraiser for Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights, also sounded the alarm about November.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder of how important it is for Democrats to keep hold of the Senate. When the future of our judiciary branch and women’s access to health care is at stake, we need every woman to get out and vote in November,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List.

Another political use of Monday’s Supreme Court action came in the form of fundraising pleas by politicos. As it happens, Monday is June 30 — the last day of the quarter, always a big day for fundraisers trying to squeeze a little more cash out of donors. The Hobby Lobby ruling gave the pleas an added edge of panic.

“As bad as this decision is, if [Gov.] Rick Scott had his way, not only would contraception not be covered in Florida — hundreds of thousands of women would lose their coverage,” wrote Charlie Crist, who’s trying to get his old job back as governor of Florida, but as a Democrat. The ask: $1.