Can a corporation have religious beliefs? This question may soon confront the Supreme Court. It is an inevitable part of the evolution of our latest addition to humankind…corporations. As a part of the battle over the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Hobby Lobby filed suit against the government, asking for an emergency injunction to stop the fines that will be imposed if they do not offer an insurance plan to employees that covers contraceptives with no copay. On Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the injunction, but ruled that Hobby Lobby may continue to challenge the law in lower courts.
Attorneys for Hobby Lobby and their owners, the Greene family, plan to continue their appeals in an effort to gain an exemption from the law. They claim that the law makes it impossible for the owners to earn a living while maintaining their faith. This case isn’t simply an issue of a company’s owners exercising religious freedom. There are much more resounding issues at stake.
The first issue is the ability of corporations to exempt themselves from laws based on religious beliefs. The most ridiculous ruling would be that corporations, already granted personhood, could also have established religions and the rights associated with the practice of those religions. We can easily see the abuse of this ruling. Corporations could claim adherence to any faith that would allow them to save money by gaining exemptions from the law.
The other option would be to declare that the religious beliefs of the owners are the driving force behind the rights of the corporation. Of course, this is contradictory to the concept of corporate personhood. Corporate personhood is based on the idea that organizations of people should not be deprived of their rights when they act collectively. If the corporation is to be granted rights based on the collective actions of the individuals, then it cannot be granted rights based on the beliefs of only a few individuals in that collective.
Of course, the only rational option would be to declare that corporations, though granted personhood, cannot claim to have a religious belief, and that they cannot use the religious beliefs of the owners as a basis to exempt themselves from the law. With this ruling, the owners of Hobby Lobby could choose to pay the fines, which could be an estimated $1.3 million per day, or simply provide the insurance to their employees. They are not being forced to do anything. They would have the option to pay for their choice not to provide the insurance.
There are ramifications of this case that may go well beyond the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. For example, consider what laws companies could be exempt from if they are allowed to claim a religious status. Companies could claim to adhere to religions such as the Bible Reader’s Fellowship, a small evangelical group in Florida that completely shuns medical treatment. They could claim that they shouldn’t be forced to provide insurance to their employees based on this belief.
Another serious consequence of this case could be the legal descriptions of contraceptives. The issues that the Greene family have all center on what they consider abortion-inducing contraceptives. These are pills such as the “day after pill” that block a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. If the court rules that they can refuse to provide this coverage because it is an abortion, it could be the first step in a legal definition of a fertilized egg as a human life. If the law recognizes that a fertilized egg can be considered life for the purposes of health care coverage, that recognition must continue to extend to other areas. Conservatives would be able to change the definition of life and potentially eliminate the right of women to choose abortion without any scientific evidence that a fertilized egg is anything other than a joining of gamete cells.
Many of the negative consequences of this case can be avoided by a very carefully worded ruling, even if the court is foolish enough to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby. I don’t really expect the court to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby. With the length of time it takes for cases to reach the court, it is quite possible that the makeup of the court will have changed completely by the time the case is heard. There is a definite possibility that President Obama will be able to replace one or two of the sitting justices with people of a more liberal, or rational, mindset. In the meantime, we can celebrate a small victory knowing that companies who are trying to avoid their legal obligations by using the personal beliefs of their owners have been dealt a devastating blow to their ridiculous belief that they can impose their beliefs on the people they employ. Maybe if we can get enough of them to pay hundreds of millions in fines, we can solve the budget problem.