The Hobby Lobby case regarding religious freedom has roots in the much broader issue of corporate personhood.
The US Supreme Court is preparing to release a decision this month in the case of Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius. At stake is the craft chain’s right to claim exemption from the Affordable Health Care requirement for corporations to provide health insurance that includes access to a “morning after pill” form of contraception that prevents implantation of a potential embryo. If they succeed in securing this right, the implications could extend far beyond those being sought by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby.
Religious Persecution vs. Diminished Individuality
Religious conservatives see this case as one of religious persecution. Hobby Lobby, a privately held company, pays its employees above the national average, closes on Sundays to allow employees time to be with family, and covers full-time employees with health care. This health care provides access to a choice of 16 forms of contraception. The only area in which Hobby Lobby does not comply with the Affordable Care Act is that it does not include coverage for 4 additional forms of contraception that the Green family feels amount to the same thing as abortion. This devout family does not support abortion and does not want their company in any way to sponsor abortions. And to back up their claim, they are currently accruing fines in the amount of $475 million a year as they fight this health care rule. To the viewer looking for an offense against religious rights, this could sound alarming.
But the real matter here is whether or not a corporation should be afforded the same rights as an individual. Lawyers for Hobby Lobby are using the Restoration of the Freedom of Religion Act (RFRA) as their key precedent. The RFRA allows for an individual to request exemption from a general application law on the grounds that it would interfere significantly with the exercise of one’s religion. If the corporation of Hobby Lobby is a reflection of the individual shareholders, the Green family, then a case might be made that the $475 million fine currently imposed on the corporation is a significant hardship on the Greens as they exercise their right to follow their religious conscience.
However, the implications of a corporation being considered on the same footing as an individual are concerning. A corporation is the cumulative voice of a large group of individuals, each of whom already has their own voice. If they also have a voice through their corporation and the pooling of their corporate resources, then their voice is now bigger than my individual voice. And my individual rights are now smaller since I’m playing on the same field with a giant player. A major shift occurred in 2010 in the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. FEC through which corporations are now being allowed to support political campaigns as individuals, and which only threatens to undermine the voice of the individual just a little bit more. The Greens are not personally liable for their corporation in the event of a lawsuit, so they also should not be able to consider their corporation to have the religious rights of a person.
Freedom to Discriminate?
A decision in favor of Hobby Lobby could spell more harm than good for religious rights in America. If this company is allowed an exemption, they essentially claim the right to deny employees the full spectrum of benefits regulated by the government. That’s discrimination. And that calls to mind a culture of separate drinking fountains, and a time before common law partners could claim survivor benefits. A victory for the freedom to discriminate takes this country in the wrong direction. And it certainly does nothing to present Christianity as the answer to the troubles of the world, or prompt the casual observer to look up a church to attend this weekend. Hobby Lobby is on the wrong side of this religious publicity campaign.
The corporation itself is not a religious entity. It has no eternal soul in need of salvation. But it does choose to feature its Christian faith as an integral part of itself. Shouldn’t an organization like this be working to provide even more than what the government requires? Isn’t the mandate of the gospel to help the poor and needy? Perhaps a better use of $475 million this year might be to step up health education or pregnancy support counseling on a company-wide level. Perhaps a better way to take a stand for justice and freedom of religion might be to choose to love and support all employees, regardless of their religious affiliation and regardless of what contraceptive choice they might make from a government-sponsored list.