The controversy surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision favoring Hobby Lobby on June 30 came to Warwick on July 5.
The Oklahoma-based company had challenged a provision of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law requiring contraceptive coverage, and the court’s decision means some for-profit companies can refuse to provide such coverage to employees on religious grounds. The case and the ruling have sparked intense debate across the nation.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., about 50 people gathered outside the Hobby Lobby location on Bald Hill Road to protest the court’s decision and call on shoppers to boycott the store.
Participants in the demonstration carried signs that bore slogans such as “More Hobby Less Lobby,” “It’s Hobby Lobby not Body Lobby,” “Boycott Hobby Lobby,” and “Support women’s rights.”
Many politicians visited the protest to show support, including Providence Mayor Angel Tavares and Clay Pell, both Democratic candidates for governor; U.S. Rep. David Ciciline; and Frank Ferri, a candidate for lieutenant governor.
“Health care is a right, not a privilege,” Ferri said, who asserted that the decision opens a Pandora’s box. “Everyone has different needs, and no one should be able to decide whether those needs are met or not.”
A business owner himself, Ferri was critical of the court’s finding that a company can limit the scope of health coverage for employees based on the religious views of its ownership.
“I would never presume to influence my employees’ health care decisions,” he said. “That is just wrong.”
Pearl Stack, one of the demonstrators, echoed those concerns.
“Now, if I am to go to a job interview, my boss has the right to ask my about my prescriptions,” she said. “That just isn’t right.”
“The Supreme Court used a very narrow definition for religious freedom,” said Tony Houston. “They never included the freedom from religion in their decision. They deferred to religion because they are supposed to be deeply held beliefs, but people can have secular beliefs that are just as strong if not stronger than so called religious beliefs. We have to stand by our secular laws and make decisions based on them.”
Others said the decision opens the door for gender-based discrimination.
“Only people with ovaries were affected,” said Brandie Skorker.
The managers at Hobby Lobby were instructed not to comment during the demonstration, as had the store’s employees. Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby with her husband David, in a statement previous said the court’s decision “re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles.”
The contentious nature of the debate over the case was clear during the Warwick demonstration. Some passing cars honked in support, and a few even stopped on the busy road to ask for more information. Not everyone was sympathetic to the cause, however – one car flew by the protestors, and a passenger called those taking part in the demonstration killers and made an obscene gesture.
Shoppers were also split. Some approaching the store, after hearing the concerns of the demonstrators, left without shopping. One woman, who declined to identify herself, indicated she plans to continue to be a costumer of Hobby Lobby as she left the story.
“I am still going to shop here. It won’t make a big difference,” she said.
Several demonstrators argued that the court’s decision opens the door for companies to challenge other aspects of the law in ways that may lead to discriminatory practices.
“It is my sincere belief that religious beliefs should not be the standards by which the Supreme Court holds itself to,” said Jeremy Rix, city coordinator for the Warwick Progressive Democrats. “No matter what, it is the right of any woman to make these kinds of decisions for herself. We have entered a slippery slope. This is why we are here today. We have to begin an educated discussion and raise awareness.”
“We have separation of church and state in this country, and a employer’s religious beliefs should not dictate their morals over employees and supercede what has been approved by the government,” said Lauren Niedel, deputy state coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of Rhode Island.
Stephen Ahlquist, a writer for RIFuture.org and president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, organized the protest. With the help of social media, he put everything together in less than 10 days.
Ahlquist said he believes the Hobby Lobby decision represents the breaking down of the barrier between what defines a corporation and an individual.
“Religious freedom allows you to congregate at your church, but if you want to act in a secular capacity, such as Hobby Lobby, you have to abide by secular laws,” he said. “This is such a damaging decision, and if it isn’t repealed you can be sure we will be falling down one slippery slope.”
Ahlquist also pointed to the Ocean State’s history as making it a fitting venue for a protest against the court’s decision.
“It is appropriate for this protest to be in Rhode Island. We invented separation of church and state so people would be able to have religious freedom. We should be the ones reasserting that,” he said.
The demonstrators plan to reconvene on Saturday in front of the Seekonk Hobby Lobby.