First, the courts decided that corporations are people. Then, the courts decided that corporations have free speech rights. Now, we’re on the verge of deciding that corporations — those legal fictions with no face, no heart and no soul — have the right to freely exercise religion, too.
The Supreme Court today heard arguments in the case of two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which are suing over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that businesses provide health insurance including contraceptive coverage to workers. The companies — run by evangelical Christians and Mennonites, respectively — object to providing coverage for specific types of contraception that they say is the equivalent of abortion.
According to Politico, justices appeared skeptical of the government’s argument that providing the care didn’t trample on religious freedoms of corporations, or that legal entitles shouldn’t enjoy First Amendment free exercise of religion protections under the law the same as real-life, flesh-and-blood people.
Attorneys for the two companies said the solution was obvious: Extend the exceptions the law gives to non-profit, sectarian organizations (including churches) to all businesses that raise an objection of religious conscience over the contraception mandate.
It was left to Justice Elena Kagan to point out the obvious: “She said allowing an exception for the companies involved could lead to other firms seeking exemptions from laws barring sex discrimination or child labor or laws requiring family leave and a minimum wage,” according to the Politico story.
“‘One religious group would opt out of this and one religious group would opt out of that, and everything would be piecemeal. Nothing would be uniform,’ Kagan warned. ‘Religious objectors would come out of the woodwork.’”
Of course they would. Scientology founder and novelist L. Ron Hubbard allegedly said one doesn’t get rich writing fiction; if you want to get rich, you start your own religion. Well, now it’s possible not only to get rich, but also to avoid those laws to which you object, provided you can do so with some sincerity.
(This is not to suggest the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga don’t believe what they say they do. Although it’s quite reasonable to understand the biblical encouragement to reproduce in the context of an itinerant desert-wandering people never more than one generation away from extinction; for them, breeding meant survival. But it’s best to let theologians define doctrines rather than the courts, even if those cases in which litigants thrust their doctrines squarely into the courtroom.)
If the court sides with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, an entirely new arena of law may develop, in which the owners of companies anthropomorphize their religious beliefs onto their legally fictitious creations, and by extension, their employees. Employed by ABC Hardware? Sorry, their religion prohibits the use of medicine to treat ailments; no prescription coverage for you. Work at XYZ Software? Did you know the an hour of prayer each day keeps the doctor away, not regular checkups? No preventative care for you.
And the counter argument, that it’s wrong to force corporations to violate their religious beliefs by paying for things that violate the doctrines of their religion, is absurd on its face. Corporations are not people, and they cannot have beliefs. And just because the owner of a corporation thinks abortion is wrong should not stop one of his female employees from making her own reproductive choices, in accordance with her religious beliefs, especially when coverage is provided by a third-party insurance company and physician.
Also, would now be a good time to point out the real problem here is that we’ve linked health care to employment? If we had elected, say, to provide single-payer, Medicare for all, then Hobby Lobby employees would not need to get employer permission to use the birth control of their choice. They’d have coverage, just by virtue of the fact that they are Americans. But because we elected to build the Affordable Care Act on the rickety foundation of the existing health-care system, we will continue to see cases like this emerge.