Monday, April 7, 2014

Religious Liberty and the End of Corporations

The Supreme Court heard a case that represents a social issue of paramount importance. Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. is indicative of a larger undercurrent in the United States that began with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and has most recently found a home in the Affordable Care Act, and the employer mandate to provide contraception—the dramatic expansion of the protection of “religious liberty”. Hobby Lobby argues that providing health insurance that covers birth control violates the religious beliefs of its owners, and should be granted an exemption. This case ultimately comes to the questions of whether the religious beliefs of the individual owners can dictate policy for the entirety of the business, and whether the corporation is actually an individual that can express these preferences. I contend that this drastic expansion of the definition of “religious liberty” is at best harmful, and at worst an opportunity for business owners across the country to deny rights to workers and services to patrons.

          This specific case is crucial because it signifies a starting point by which draconian “religious freedom” bills could find precedent, should the Court decide in favor of the non-government party. A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby will affirm the personhood of corporations, a model that was created by the Court in the aforementioned Citizens United case. This would mean that corporations cannot only express their wants in the political arena, but also follow a religion, hold a conscience, and discern right from wrong.

Here lies the true detrimental impact of the case—if the Court rules that corporations are treated as sentient entities, the Arizona “religious freedom” bill, and many others like it, would find a standard by which they can argue the legitimacy of their cause. If corporations can opt out of healthcare mandates on religious grounds, the decision to deny services to patrons deemed morally objectionable based on the owner’s religious beliefs would be justified, as would choosing to hang a “whites only” sign outside of a restaurant through the owner’s interpretation of Leviticus. A loan officer could deny credit to a man with visible tattoos because the Prophet Muhammad teaches that permanent markings are haram. The wrong decision in this case would eliminate any standard by which subjective religious interpretations can be separated from business practices in the free market.

To avoid these scenarios, the Supreme Court must rule in favor of the government party in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. Further, the President should aggressively pursue appointing members to the Federal Election Commission that have shown strong support for political contribution reform. The government must make positive steps towards reversing the precedent set by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in order to affirm the basic tenant of corporate law that separates the corporation, a legal entity, from its owners, and allow individuals to seek goods and services in a truly free market. Just as my right to swing my fist ends at my neighbor’s cheek, the rights of businesses to express their beliefs ends where they violate the rights of workers and consumers alike.