Why corporations don’t deserve religious freedom

By Jay Michaelson
March 24, 2014

On March 25 the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, whose outcomes will decide whether corporations can exempt themselves from provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), based on religious beliefs. The cases challenge a provision of the ACA that requires employer-provided insurance plans to include contraception coverage.

The rulings’ importance extends beyond the ACA, however. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, its companion case, are also about Citizens United — which established that corporate personhood includes freedom of speech, exercised, in part, by giving money to political causes. Now the court will decide whether corporations have freedom of religion as well, and whether on the basis of those rights, corporations can deprive services to others.

The court should reject this dangerous assertion. Corporations exist as separate legal entities precisely to distinguish their activities from those of their owners. It is that separation that Hobby Lobby threatens to erase.

The facts are straightforward. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers must provide health insurance to employees — including, if the employee requests it, coverage for women’s healthcare, which includes contraception. Hobby Lobby, a national corporation with more than 21,000 employees, is owned by conservative Christians who believe that by providing the option of such coverage — though it is chosen and used by someone else — they would violate their religious beliefs. So the company sued Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and the department, among others.

But the injured party here is Hobby Lobby, not the owners. Thus the corporation, not its owners, is alleged to have a conscience and religious beliefs afflicted by Obamacare.

This is an audacious expansion of the corporate personhood established by Citizens United, and one with deeply troubling consequences. In claiming that corporations have consciences, the plaintiffs — or, more precisely, their legal advocates, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the latter of which has largely underwritten the campaign — are entering a theological and legal quagmire.

Under this logic, if a corporation abhors birth control, it can also abhor the mixing of races, two women holding hands in a shopping mall, the profession of a belief in any God but Allah — you name it. To take one example, a fast-food chain (like Chick-fil-A which, like Hobby Lobby, is owned by conservative Christians) could forbid entry to Jews, African-Americans, or anyone else they wanted to, as long as the corporation asserted a conscience claim.

We don’t have to imagine such hypotheticals. In 1965, restaurateur and politician Lester Maddox said that to obey the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and allow African-Americans to eat at his restaurant, would be “a sin against God.” Just like the Hobby Lobby owners and the ACA provision, Maddox said that being forced to serve food to mixed-race groups violated his religious beliefs. Maddox lost in court and closed his restaurant rather than integrate it. Then, in a backlash against the civil rights movement, he was elected governor of Georgia the following year.

Surely this was the right legal result: whatever a business owner’s religious beliefs, the business itself should obey the same laws as every other corporation, including civil rights laws and the ACA.

Those concerned about corporate governance should also oppose this expansion of Citizens United. It represents an inverse “piercing of the veil” of corporate liability. If Hobby Lobby’s owners are responsible for their company’s religious beliefs, why not for its negligence, for example? Or its debts?

Indeed, the ludicrous notion of a crafts store kneeling to say its novenas undermines the premise of Citizens United itself. Corporations aren’t moral agents. The notion of “corporate personhood” is a legal fiction.

It’s wishful thinking that the court will overturn Citizens United on the way to rejecting Hobby Lobby’s claim to conscience. It need not, and probably will not, do so. Then again, Hobby Lobby’s claim also seemed like wishful thinking when it was first proposed.

Lawyers, like corporations, can dream.

 

PHOTOS: The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington March 5, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron 

Demonstrators stage a protest near the U.S. Supreme Court building, on the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, in Washington, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 

 

 

 

 

 

734 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This is the perfect blog for anybody who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a topic which has been written about for decades. Excellent stuff, just great!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on %meta_keyword%. Regards|

Attractive section of content. I just stumbled upon your weblog and in accession capital to assert that I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feeds and even I achievement you access consistently fast.|

I am not sure the place you’re getting your information, however great topic. I must spend a while finding out much more or figuring out more. Thanks for fantastic information I used to be looking for this info for my mission.|

Wow! This could be one particular of the most useful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Great. I am also a specialist in this topic so I can understand your hard work.

This is a topic that’s close to my heart… Cheers! Where are your contact details though?|

WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for %meta_keyword%|

Attractive section of content. I just stumbled upon your blog and in accession capital to assert that I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently fast.|

You made several fine points there. I did a search on the issue and found the majority of folks will have the same opinion with your blog.

Heya! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the outstanding work!|

This is a topic that is near to my heart… Best wishes! Exactly where are your contact details though?

Excellent post. I’m dealing with a few of these issues as well..|

Hi, Neat post. There’s a problem along with your site in web explorer, would check this? IE still is the marketplace chief and a huge portion of other folks will omit your great writing because of this problem.|

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about %meta_keyword%. Regards|