David Barton, an influential conservative activist who helped write the Republican Party’s 2012 platform, argues that the Bible opposes the minimum wage, unions and collective bargaining, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and progressive taxation in general. Should a company whose owners share Barton’s views be allowed to ignore laws that protect workers by claiming that those laws violate the company’s religious beliefs?
That’s a questions being asked as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether it will recognize for the first time ever that for-profit corporations can make religious freedom claims under federal law.
When an actual human being goes to court with a claim that the federal government is violating their freedom to practice their religion, judges consider several questions in applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Does the law or policy in question place a substantial burden on the person’s religious exercise? If so, can it be justified because the law is advancing a compelling government interest and doing so in the least restrictive way?
That’s pretty straightforward, even if individual cases require tough judgment calls about what constitutes a substantial burden and a compelling government interest. But what happens when a for-profit corporation claims a law violates its exercise of religion? Can a business have a religious conscience?
That crucial question is being considered by the Supreme Court in two cases brought by for-profit corporations claiming their religious freedom is violated by a requirement that their insurance plans include comprehensive contraception coverage. In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, business owners say their companies should not be required to provide their employees with insurance that covers kinds of contraception that violate the business owners’ religious beliefs or what they say are the religious beliefs of the corporation itself.
Legal scholars have weighed in on both sides of the claim. While federal courts have never recognized a for-profit corporation’s right to make a religious exercise claim, they have also never explicitly ruled that there is no such right. In the cases now before the Supreme Court, two appeals courts disagreed with each other. The Tenth Circuit sided with Hobby Lobby but the Third Circuit said, “[W]e simply cannot understand how a for-profit secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion.”
If the Supreme Court sets a new precedent granting for-profit corporations a soul, so to speak, where will it end? Law professors Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle warn that it would produce “a massive redistribution of legal leverage away from employees and to their employers.” And, they write, “If Hobby Lobby’s claims prevail…other employer claims under RFRA will be very difficult to deny. Some current cases involve objections to coverage of all pregnancy prevention services. In the future, others may involve protection of employees with respect to different medical services, collective bargaining, family leave, or invidious discrimination.”
The Becket Fund, the conservative legal group representing Hobby Lobby, dismisses concerns about opening the floodgates to all kinds of religious objections, saying it hasn’t happened under RFRA to date. But of course, no Court has yet invited the flood of objections by giving business owners the right to claim corporate exemptions for religious belief.
Justice Elena Kagan raised this concern during oral argument, asking Hobby Lobby’s lawyer Paul Clement about employers who might have religious objections to sex discrimination laws, minimum wage laws, and child labor or family leave laws. Clement said he doubted the “parade of horribles” would happen. But Justice Kagan replied that if the Court were to adopt his argument, “then you would see religious objectors come out of the woodwork with respect to all of these laws." Solicitor General Paul Verrilli noted that if the Court grants corporations a right to make free exercise claims, judges will have to grapple with potential harm to employees and other third parties.
But it’s not just employees who could be hurt by such a ruling – it could be companies themselves. David Gans, writing for Slate, made an interesting observation: corporate America is staying out of this case almost completely, which is surprising given its eagerness to use federal courts to promote corporate interests. Gans says that not a single Fortune 500 company filed a brief in the case. Neither did the Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business. The corporate voices that did weigh in — the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce — oppose Hobby Lobby’s claims because recognizing a corporate right to the free exercise of religion would “wreak havoc in corporate boardrooms.”
Gans cites a brief from a group of corporate law scholars “who argued that Hobby Lobby’s argument would eviscerate the fabric of corporate law” because ascribing a business owner’s religious views to the corporation would treat the owner and company as one and the same. “Such an unprincipled, idiosyncratic exception from corporate law fundamentals, the scholars argued, would breed confusion in the law, lead to costly litigation, and undermine critical aspects of corporate law designed to spur creativity and innovation.”
Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor who serves on Becket’s board, has argued that if we want businesses to behave responsibly, “they must be treated as having some moral agency.” The Supreme Court, she says, “should take the opportunity to confirm that businesses can and should have consciences.” It’s a nice thought. But given right-wing efforts to merge the Tea Party and Religious Right, and foster a growing belief that far-right economics and anti-government ideology are grounded in religious dogma, it seems highly unlikely that the consequence of giving conservative business leaders a powerful new tool for undermining government regulation would be more socially responsible corporate behavior.