SCOTUS Case to Decide Whether Corporations Can Be Religious

Today, two very large for-profit corporations – arts and crafts behemoth Hobby Lobby and cabinet-maker Conestoga Wood Specialties – argued before the Supreme Court, to ask that they be allowed to deny employees access to  contraceptive coverage mandated under the Affordable Care Act. Under the ACA, employer health plans must cover all FDA-approved birth control methods and services, without a co-payment.

It’s difficult to overestimate just how ridiculous this in, on many levels.

For one thing, such coverage was included in the majority of insurance policies before the ACA, and no one raised a fuss. All of a sudden, this is a problem? Oh, right; it’s the government mandate. I forgot. We should allow companies to do whatever they want. Right?

For the Supremes to go along with this and side with these two secular companies, however, would essentially shred the First Amendment to pieces. These policies aren’t a gift from the companies to their employees; they’re an integral part of an employee’s compensation package. Which means it’s the employee who is paying for the policy. To allow a company to decide unilaterally not to allow contraception coverage is essentially the same as allowing a company to dictate to employees regarding how they spend their salaries. For example, what if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga were to demand that employees not spend any of their salary on contraception. Would that fly for the same pseudo-religious geniuses who are citing these companies’ “freedom of religion” as a rationale for this silliness?

The real legal question that the two companies are asking the Supremes to resolve is whether the ACA’s contraception coverage mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the government from creating a situation that will “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.” The key word there is “person.” There is an exception to the rule, such as when the burden is necessary to satisfy a “compelling government interest.” The government must also act base on “the least restrictive means.” Given that no one who buys an insurance policy is being forced to use birth control, it’s difficult to imagine a “less restrictive means” for encouraging access to birth control. Companies are also not actually required to provide  employees insurance at all; they do have the option of paying a tax, if they find the rules too difficult to follow.

I noted that “person” is a key word here. The First Amendment guarantees the right of “persons” to be free to worship as they please, or to not worship at all if they so choose. Since these companies are not religious organizations, and they are unaffiliated with religious organizations, their claim that the ACA mandate is a violation of their religious liberty turns partly on their claims of “personhood.” Unfortunately, that term as been partly redefined in recent years by modern Republicans. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga claim the mandate places a “substantial burden” on their religious exercise, which is an absurd argument. Everyone inside those companies is free to worship as they wish right now, even with the contraception rules in place. But if the companies prevail, the religious beliefs of thousands of employees will no longer be intact. Have the corporate “persons” ever set foot in a church? Better yet, how does he/she/it claim a single religion? By fiat?

As at least one amicus brief filed in this case very eloquently points out, if the Supreme Court were to allow a secular corporation to have a religious exemption, it would actually destroy the balance of power between corporations and shareholders. A basic fundamental principle of the structure of corporate law involves creating a legal “person” that has rights and obligations that are separate from the rights and obligations of its shareholders. It would effectively allow shareholders to vote to pass their religious values on to the corporation, regardless of the religion they claim.

There is no doubt that our government – and health insurance companies, for that matter – has a “compelling” interest when it comes to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Strangely, one would think the people proffering the “religious” argument would as well, since reducing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies also reduced the number of abortions. But alas, there is no common sense in anti-choice land.

While it’s not likely the Supremes will side with the corporations on this, it will be a bad thing if it does. Although there would be a silver lining to that black cloud. The government has already carved out an accommodation for real religious entities in their role as employers, by creating a “free insurance option” for those who work for a church. If you think about it, this can be seen as a forerunner to a “public option.”

Other than that, however, such a decision would be a disaster. Where do you draw the line? What if a company is owned by someone who thinks there should be no blood transfusions? What if another is owned by someone who claims their religion forces them to deny psychiatric care coverage? What if their religion precludes them “offering” anesthesia coverage or vaccinations?  And what if a company’s claimed “religious beliefs” cause them to deny insurance coverage to gays, blacks or women?

This is an area where the Supreme Court can really only go in one direction. To grant religious rights to corporations would effectively deny the same rights to the millions of people who work for companies like this.

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Copyright 2014 The PCTC Blog

One comment

  1. Beyond the obvious fact that Hobby Lobby’s ‘religion’ would trump that of any employee, Hobby Lobby et al. do NOT PAY for contraceptive coverage. It is part of a package so that they will save NOTHING. No money has always meant no case. It will become a major floodgate opening for people to sue for ‘relief’ even where no monetary damage or burden can be shown.

    It is a pity that there is no part of the amicus FOR ACA that comes from religious groups for whom contraception is an embedded MORAL GOOD. It’s not, as the conservatives think, just a ‘pass’ by Protestants, Jews, etc. but a firm belief that family size and spacing is part of our moral commitment to care for creation, care for the survival and well being of the human family, and a deeply embedded part of our own Family Values that preserves intimacy and stability. It’s not just an afterthought but a profound dedication. So Hobby Lobby gets to trump OUR values with their own? There is no such thing as a free market in labor, especially in this day and age. One needs to work, and work is entirely an agreement to share one’s labor in exchange for wages and benefits. How that employee lives outside of the world of the employer is legally protected. If the 1993 Clinton signed act trumps the Civil Rights Act allowing an employer to trump the religious rights of the employee, then all hell breaks loose. Religious conservatives who don’t work for the rather limited number of businesses owned by conservatives, too, will face mandates from THEIR employers that can forbid them all manner of things. Cannot bring ham sandwiches to work in a Jewish owned business. Cannot display or wear a cross where that is not the faith of the owners. Can’t have transfusions if the Jehovah’s Witness owner forbids coverage (again part of the package, no expense to the owner.)

    The free exercise of religion is not thwarted by employees exercising conscience. It IS thwarted by being forbidden to do so by one’s employer when that employer is in now way harmed by the act. So what if Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays? So does R.C. Willey that is owned by Warren Buffet. That is not the point. It is that the employee and ONLY the employee gets to decide his or her morality outside of work, Sunday through Saturday, 365 days per year.

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