Editorial: Can corporations have religious beliefs?
Here in the birthplace of Christian Science, the question of whether a corporation has religious beliefs that government must respect has a special meaning. Lower federal courts have split on the issue. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear cases involving two companies which, on religious grounds, object to complying with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health insurance coverage provided by employers include a range of contraceptive services.
In one, Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a split decision, cited the Supreme Court’s own ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case. If corporations have the same free speech rights as people, how can they not have the same right to religious freedom, a judge in the majority said. Justices in Philadelphia’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Third Circuit Court in Cincinnati, disagreed. “General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors,” the Third Circuit ruling said.
The courts that found that for-profit corporations are not “persons” whose religious beliefs must be respected got it right. The members of any faith, when they choose to form for-profit corporations to take advantage of the benefits and protections afforded by that status, cannot then claim to be “people” whose beliefs entitle them to another privileged status: the right to pick and choose, on religious grounds, which laws apply to them.
The corporations – the 500-store, Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain and a Pennsylvania cabinet company owned by a Mennonite family – contend that contributing to the purchase of employee insurance that includes contraceptive coverage violates their ability to freely exercise their religion. We’ve no doubt that their beliefs are sincere. And the owners are free, in their own lives, to live by them. But corporations are not, and should not, in all but rare cases, be free to make life and health decisions for their employees. Should the high court rule otherwise, the result would be chaos and rampant inequity, in the provision of health care, and perhaps other things.
Christian Science followers of Mary Baker Eddy believe that the sick can be healed through prayer. If the court grants personhood status to corporations for purposes of religion, would the Christian Scientist owners of a corporation be exempt from complying with the entire Affordable Care Act?
Would corporate owners whose beliefs include a prohibition against homosexuality be entitled to discriminate against gay people on religious grounds? Could some corporations refuse to provide coverage that includes vaccinations or blood transfusions? Could owners who are devotees of a faith that forbids alcohol use refuse to pay for substance abuse coverage?
How would claims of religious belief on the part of corporate owners be vetted for sincerity? Who would decide whether the religious beliefs were sincere, or claimed in an attempt to avoid corporate responsibility and save money?
No member of the current Supreme Court was serving in 1982 when the justices decided a case that should serve as this court’s guide. The case involved an Amish employer who refused to withhold Social Security taxes on religious grounds.
In its ruling, the court said: “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others.”
That court got it right, and the current court should similarly rule.