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 







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Incorporation means you have removed personal responsibility of the corporation’s owners and officers, from the debts of the corporation. So in the case of a corporate collapse for example, vendors and creditors can not come after the CEO’s personal house. This is a dangerous game (fathers hated the idea of separating people from their business obligations), but it is what it is now.

Having said that, when you remove the personal stake from the corporate entity….. you also remove the goodies (like personal freedoms). There is no Bill of Rights for corporations because corporations are not human. Remember?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

In Canada personal healthcare is provided by the Provincial government, not by businesses. It saves businesses a lot of time and money not having to deal with healthcare. Some companies offer supplemental healthcare for dental, eyewear, prescriptions but are under no obligation to do so. Canada spends a lot less money on healthcare with as good or better outcomes as the US contrary to what the opponents of universal healthcare (doctors, healthcare providers, attorneys) would have US citizens believe. It is amazing how gullible the US general public is and how easily they have been manipulated by scare tactics. The saddest part is that Obamacare appears to be a lousy half-way attempt at achieving the best outcome. It has only made matters worse and frightened folks out of their wits. This case would not be happening north of the border.

Posted by icedawg | Report as abusive

The only thing audacious here is the infliction of Obamacare on the American people.
This partisan power ploy, which has failed miserably in its intended purpose as 30 million are still not insured.

Further, it has destroyed any semblance of finality to health insurance policy, doctor/hospital coverage and cost control. It’s namesake is continually moving the goal posts and granting sovereign exemptions to protected classes.

That a privately held company can be forced to comply with onerous requirements that violate religious freedom is a travesty. Are muslim orgs. forced to comply without consideration? I doubt it!

People can now opt out without penalty if too expensive or twelve other options.

Incompetence runs rampant in this fiasco even though Pelosi and Reid can’t admit it.

Posted by gitmojo | Report as abusive

Hobby Lobby is a dying company anyway. They have not kept up with modern tastes and they have too much online competition. So they go to court in a neck brace to try and get something for free.

This is a crap lawsuit, and Hobby Lobby and their polyester lawyers are out to lunch. There is a reason they have lost this frivolous suit at every turn.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Why should an employer, corporate or not, be able to control the details of healthcare provided by insurance? If some company is permitted to object to contraception, then any company can object to anything. Perhaps I think that pain relief is immoral. And why should it stop with medical issues: suppose I think women shouldn’t be allowed to drive, or that Sunday is only for attending church, or that no one should eat meat on Friday.

Employment is only for the purpose of the work. The employer should gain no other benefit than that the work gets done.

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

This is Pandora’s Box. Jews, Blacks, Gays, Muslims, Single Women with Children, Hispanics, Interracial Couples, Interracial Children, Agnostics, Atheists…we’re all screwed if this gains traction. Who won’t run the risk of being discriminated against? White males.

Next, corporations will be able to discriminate against those with whom they don’t “feel comfortable” because of their religious beliefs.

Religion is the scourge of the planet. Always has been.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

I’m not personally religious. But I am disturbed by the notion that this law could impose upon business owners, behavior which violates their religious freedoms.

Yes, in some ways, a corporation is a separate entity. However, the legal definition of a corporation is what defines the extent to which that is true. Ultimately, for instance, stock holders or private owners DO face the legal and monetary consequences of the operations of their businesses.

It seems odd to me the necessity of mandating coverage for contraception, especially given that it MUST have been known ahead of time that it would cause problems like this. It seems to me that paring contraception coverage out of the ACA would be a trifling matter, lost in the noise when compared with the other ongoing problems the law is facing.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive

Yashmak writes: ” for instance, stock holders or private owners DO face the legal and monetary consequences of the operations of their businesses…”

Owners of corporations have no personal financial responsibility to cover the corporation’s debts and liabilities. That is the point of a corporation: separation. Orange Julius goes broke and owes its vendors 50 million dollars….. the owner gets to keep his boat. That’s the deal, like it or not. So to argue for separation when it comes to financial responsibility, but person-hood when it comes to finding religion…. well, the lower courts have shot that nonsense down for a reason.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

America should stop subsidizing conservative Christians who have no common sense when it comes to family size.

The federal tax deduction for dependents should be limited to a family of four. Beyond that Christians should expect their god to help them out with the costs of raising a family.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Amoral personalities, imbued with outrage only at the hint of others with morals, proceed to what end? Removal of freedoms of others who choose not to follow a mob’s approach? Content that a freedom of theirs, enshrined in the highest court in the land, absolves others of theirs. What is to become of self determination? Convenient when it suits arguments based superficial topics, inconvenient when its comes to the great society and the nirvana of utopia. Both uses remove ones rights and liberties as individuals; totalitarianism doth returned so soon from the ashes of the twentieth century, so short the memory of the great experiments that murdered so many, that started with terms like “right way”, “solution” and “better society for all”. Let us continue on the great path once again, because now we know better and won’t make the same mistakes? Society is a collection of individuals, who need room to err not told how to live.

Posted by ANZUS | Report as abusive

The whole point of a free society is that there is open competition. So let there be Christian companies, Hindu companies, Muslim companies, atheistic companies, homosexual companies, and every other type of company, and let them compete to demonstrate their superiority in the marketplace.

There is no justification for asserting that Hobby Lobby or any other company should not have religious freedom.

Clearly, if Hobby Lobby or any other company genuinely believes that its moral position is being violated, it will simply close down – and how does benefit anyone except its competitors?

Posted by Ashok1970 | Report as abusive

If a corporation doesn’t have first amendment rights, then reuters, the writer’s company, doesn’t have first amendment rights.. except, they are the press….Every right listed in amdnement 1 to the constitution is equally protected, with not one more important. The free press is a commercial enterprise and has free speech, so are music production companies, pubishing companies, news organizations et al… there for a company can have first amendment rights, and it is ludicrous to think otherwise since at the time of the founding, the authors of the 1st amend included groups in it — churches, the press, assemblies. These groups can be commercial or non-commercial. If we want to change the idea of corporate 1st amendment protection, then amend the constitution and take out “free press” since they are companies…otherwise, stop trying to screw it up with forced mandates….. this would be no different than the gov telling reuters they must do editorials pandering to things that reuters doesn’t want to represent…. its exactly the same thing since free press, and religion are both in the 1st amendment…

Posted by jaxonomcis | Report as abusive

Good that you connected Citizens United to the pending case before the court. However you then declared the connection “audacious” because you say so….ridiculous examples included.

Under the protection of Citizens United a “corporation” can express freedom of speech by subjecting citizens to the half-truths, mis-representations, and outright lies thru advertisements in a veiled attempt to coerce (buy) an election.

By the same logic the same company can also exercise other “rights”. Unless of course our Justices had other motivations in their Citizens United ruling….

All said, I can turn off the ads, and I suppose I could find another job for a corporation (Hobby Lobby) that shares my views….

I’m fine with turning this one down, but Citizens United should fall as well…

Posted by jfred | Report as abusive


Let us just have mass chaos.

Who needs structure for a civilization any way.

I could go for beauty and bounty again, as our nation was formed.

We can be the animals we are.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

If a corporation is a person, then we should deport all the foreign ones. Including Halliburton, which is now based in Dubai. Its work visa has expired here :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Korporations are not people. This is indicative how “influenced” the Beltway gang is by Lobbies. It’s part and parcel of this very slow slide into becoming a Third world country

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Corporations are owned and staffed by people, and all those people already had the same rights as everyone else.

Citizens United gave corporation owners extra influence on our political process – a sort of double-speech or speech to the 2nd power.

A pro-corporate ruling in this case would allow corporation owners to impose their religious beliefs on others.

The Affordable Care Act doesn’t require anyone to use contraception or to own a corporation that employs people outside their faith.

Posted by DoTheMathllOlll | Report as abusive

Next up: The Supreme Court will rule that corporations have the right to vote. Then the Kochs (or Bill Gates or fill-in-the-billionaire) can just incorporate a couple of billion new companies around the country and control every election. Yay corporate personhood!

Posted by InisMagrath | Report as abusive

If corporations are people, then why is Target not in jail on 70 million counts of credit card fraud?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

jfred writes: “Under the protection of Citizens United a ‘corporation’ can express freedom of speech by subjecting citizens to the half-truths, mis-representations, and outright lies thru advertisements in a veiled attempt to coerce (buy) an election.”

Which is what Michael Moore’s corporation did with the movie Fahrenheit 911, which launched the whole Citizens United mess. The SC had to decide whether it was OK for both Moore and Citizens United, or neither. Unfortunately, they chose both. I wish for that case and the pending one, they would have chosen “neither.”

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

It is well past time that we elect people who will pass a constitutional amendment to protect average citizens from religios zealots who want to control us. Six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court of the United States are catholic and should recuse themselves from hearing any cases on abortion or contraception because some have proven they cannot seperate personal preference from the law of the land. But apparently they think not. CJ Roberts is oh-so-clever in finding little ways to undermine personal freedoms – and true democracy – in favor or corporate and religious rights. I just can’t figure out why he and the other “conservative” justices want to.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

The author states “but the injured party here is Hobby Lobby, not the owners” and notes that the owners are conservative Christians. A company is run by its owners at the end of the day, so the injury here is to those owners, obviously. While corporate owners are not liable for all of a company’s debts, they are liable to the extent of losing their whole investment. So the author’s “logical” conclusions fail all around. If you don’t want to own stock in a conservative Christian company or work for one, then don’t.

Posted by Whatabigmess | Report as abusive

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