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Editorial: When it comes to religion, corporations are not people

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs Sebelius. Kathleen Sebelius is the secretary of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that administers the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are corporations whose owners claim that their religious convictions do not permit them to provide their employees with health insurance that covers certain forms of contraception the owners consider tantamount to abortion. That medical science does not consider the morning-after pill and the IUD abortion matters not to the corporate owners, nor perhaps to a majority of Supreme Court justices.

Providing the contraceptive coverage, the reputedly devout owners say, abridges their religious freedom. They want their companies to be exempted from that portion of the law on religious grounds. If the court sides with them, the result will be, as several female justices warned, chaos. “You would see religious objectors come out of the woodwork,” Justice Elena Kagan said. Corporations, depending on which religious principles they claim, could refuse to provide coverage for vaccinations, blood transfusions, psychiatric care and other services forbidden by one religion or another. Would a business owned by Christian Scientists, who don’t believe in medical treatment, be exempt from the law in its entirety?

Quaker Oil and Quaker Oats were among the many companies founded by and owned by Quakers whose faith embraces pacifism. Should such companies be exempt from paying taxes that are used to pay for war? Would that be fair to competitors who did not receive such an exemption? Similarly, should a company be exempt from paying for health care coverage that its rivals must, under the law, provide? The answer, of course, is no.

If the majority of the justices side with the corporations, the court’s ruling could throw open the doors to discrimination against not just Hobby Lobby’s 14,000 employees but countless people with employer-provided health insurance. Some female employees would receive free contraceptive services; others, depending on the expressed belief of ownership, would have to pay out of pocket – a cost amounting to perhaps $1,000 in the case of an IUD. And who would decide which religious beliefs were real and which feigned for economic gain? The courts? Is plumbing the depths of devotion the proper role for government?

Corporations, save by the skewed logic that led to the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the majority ruled that corporations are people for First Amendment purposes, are not individuals endowed with the right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nor, until now, has any court seriously considered that they should be treated as such. Corporations are legal entities created to obtain certain benefits, which have never included the right to be treated as a person who lives, prays and attends religious services. Corporations are separate from the religious beliefs of their owners and may not force their employees to adhere to the religious principles of those owners.

In what struck us as a desperate attempt to grant religious rights to corporations without creating chaos and legions of court cases, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that a ruling could be narrowly crafted to apply only to “closely held” corporations like those owned by families that own Hobby Lobby and Conestoga. But Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, is, to the extent that family members own more than 51 percent of the stock, a closely held family corporation. It is also a company that has interwoven fundamentalist Christian principles with its business practices. Would it seek cost-saving exemptions from portions of the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds if the court sides with Hobby Lobby?

The high court should foreclose on that possibility by ruling that, for religious purposes, corporations are not people.

Here's a solution - take the insurance business totally out of the hands of employers. Relieve them of the burden of finding and providing (and paying for) acceptible health insurance. Switch to single-payer health care. (Why aren't businesses in general on this bandwagon? Wouldn't they prefer not to have to deal with it in the first place?)

Great comment. I have also wondered why businesses might not want to be relieved of thus as a chore as well as the time and money spent managing it.

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