Do Corporations Have a Right to Religious Freedom?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Birth control pills (Calek/Shutterstock)

The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that will determine whether for-profit corporations must provide insurance coverage for contraception. It's required under the Affordable Care Act, but some business owners say the mandate conflicts with their religious principles. 

The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, will now make their case to the nation's final arbiter as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. goes before the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby could be subject to fines of up to $1.3 million for not providing comprehensive coverage under the ACA. But does Hobby Lobby—a corporation—have the same religious freedoms as the company owners?

Many say the Supreme Court will approach this case under the precedent of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This is a complex case with far reaching implications for religious freedom, corporate personhood, and civil rights.

To help us break it all down is Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Also weighing in on the political consequences is Takeaway Washington Correspondent, Todd Zwillich

"This is a difficult case, in part because the companies at issue here are incorporated—they're corporations—and there's no mention of religion in their articles of incorporation," says Barringer Gordon. "But Hobby Lobby is closed on Sundays, which indicates some desire to respect what they consider the Sabbath. So there are elements of religious behavior here, and also elements of just plain secular profit seeking."

Hobby Lobby claims that providing contraception is at odds with their religious values, so the company is evoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 instead of making a First Amendment religious freedom argument. The 1993 Act declared that the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it had a "compelling" reason to do so—which sets a high standard for the federal government in requiring a change in any sort of behavior.

Barringer Gordon says that the Act was passed in response to an opinion from the Supreme Court written by Justice Antonin Scalia. The opinion said that a neutral and generally applicable law can be applied against religious persons, unless there is hostility against a particular religion or group of actors. 

"Congress was upset by that and passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was found unconstitutional as applied by the states," says the professor. "If we were talking about New York state here, for example, the company would probably not have a case. On the other hand, it still applies against the federal government, which is of course the source of the Affordable Care Act."

In one sense, Barringer Gordon says that the Supreme Court is being asked to determine if corporations can have a religion. 

"If they want to reach that, I think they certainly could," she says. "There's nothing that has prepared us for this, honestly. There's no clear precedent, other than the fact that four years ago in the Citizens United Case the same Supreme Court found that individual corporations did have First Amendment speech rights. It's the same amendment, only this time the religion clauses."

Barringer Gordon says that Hobby Lobby has not yet made clear which birth control they object to, meaning that in some sense, this case is being presented to the Supreme Court before it has been fully developed. 

"This is not a new fight—the fight over women's reproduction is a very old fight in this country, and this is replaying it in yet one more venue," she adds.

Todd Zwillich is on the ground in front of the Supreme Court. Listen to the full interview to hear how demonstrators are responding.


Sarah Barringer Gordon and Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson


T.J. Raphael

Comments [18]

Dennis DuBreuil from Florida

Good morning. I must comment on the Surpreme court decision on "religious" freedom (?). I had the unfortunately was raised catholic. Even as a youngster I had many issues of what they were trying to jam down our throats and our minds. Luckily my priest (?) decided to throw a BIBLE at me when I was 16. He did miss me and that started me a life long journey of very deep study. Tao, Zen, Buddhism and Hindu whice are Philosophies not religious dictate and dogma. I am highly insulted with their decision. I be in ALL personal rights, period. Now Pakistanie religioun believes in Suree law, is this what most Americans believe in?? Do not call myself a christian but, of course believe in the God spirit and do like what Jesus was trying to teach. The bible suggestes that Jesus was teaching us about HIM (?) give me a break. Jesus was here as MANY of our great teachers thur the enos. Jesus was teaching us about OURSELVES and what is available to ALL of us. I have no problem at all with you thoughts and believes just do not force them on us. I am a very loving spirit and respect all thou do expect me to join in YOUR beliefs as they are yours. The fight over the Ten Commandments is nuts. Lets just change the name to The Top Ten Thoughts and Believes on Life and Love. Lets learn from each other, not attack each other. We are all United under One Spirit, saying we all ALL one in this journey we are on. Hold hands and join the only one Team called Sons and Daughters of the ONE Surpreme Spirit. Thanks for your time. Dennis DuBreuil (on my smartphone and hard to go back and correct my many spelling errors) I am almost off the map on IQ thou that does mean I gave a care in school. School to me was playtime and my chance to be a Class Clown, which I did and still do very well. I always want to leave my fellow spirits with a smile and a giggle...Keep you smile, your giggles and that little guy and girl inside us all.

Jun. 30 2014 12:44 PM
MS from Portland

Corporations are legal entities that are created by the stroke of a pen. Their purpose is to engage in commerce. They are governed by the laws of the state in which they are incorporated. They are legally separate from their owners. They can continue in perpetuity.

Generally, individual owners are personally shielded from legal liability for acts of the corporation, do not own the assets of the corporation and are not liable for its debts.

Corporations are separate from, not extensions of their owners. They are not people and should not be afforded the same rights as people. An individual does not lose their religious liberty when they incorporate a business, but the business has no religion.

Mar. 28 2014 03:20 PM
Ed from Larchmont

That is one way to pose the question, the other is to ask - Does a person lose their religious liberty when they open a business?
I think the court will find in favor of Hobby Lobby because they won't be able to show that it is a burden to find these services elsewhere. Also, these two companies will supply most of the contraception in the plans, 15 or so, but not the 3 that are abortifacients. Lots rides on this decision.

Mar. 26 2014 08:07 AM
Pam Byers from San Francisco

Your story this morning about the Hobby Lobby / ACA case quoted the plaintiff and also another business owner who believes she should be able to impose her religious beliefs on her employees and customers. Both of these spokespeople of course think the case is about religious liberty.

You did not quote anyone like my several clergy friends who were there representing the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They and many others - including this active, tithing, church-going, believing Christian - believe that God created women as full moral agents able to make their own moral decisions, guided by their own religious beliefs. Employers are entitled to control employees' work - not their bodies or their beliefs.

Mar. 26 2014 01:26 AM
Joel from Westchester

So many of these problems could be resolved IF we had single-payer insurance!

Mar. 25 2014 03:16 PM
Phil from Louisville

Hobby lobby need not worry about their complicity in providing their female employees with something they consider immoral any more then they should worry about whatever their employees do with the money they earn. Healthcare is part of the employee's compensation, what employees do with their compensation ,monetary or otherwise, is up to them. They earned the healthcare just as they've earned their wages. This is an extremely silly thing for the Supreme Court to consider.

Mar. 25 2014 03:14 PM
Lily from MN

You people need to seriously get over this. I am Jewish, and growing up in a small town, had to stand there while people prayed to Jesus in school- still do at my mother-in-law's table and at Al-Anon. My voting station is in a church bedecked with Jesus and anti-choice messages. Christmas season is a nightmare- every store, every station, every greeting. No one cares. If I complain, everyone says: "That's how it is".

Mar. 25 2014 02:32 PM
Marilee from Freeport, IL

I work for a corporation where CEO and his minions are constantly parading their Christian values. They use them to bludgeon t he employees to silence. Despite the Christian verbiage the message is this: If you are not as Christian as WE are then go work elsewhere. VERY unpleasant – especially for this secret saboteur rabble rouser!

Mar. 25 2014 02:15 PM
marysrusso from Okmulgee, OK

This is going to be a very interesting decision because it asks if Corporations as a whole should be treated as an individual. The US has used armed force to protect Corporations overseas, yet not done the same for individuals at times. This LEGAL decision must not become about "life choice" by persons standing outside the act of conception (two individuals last time I checked). This LEGAL decision must determine whether a Corporation (legal entity comprised of more than an individual) has the same Constitutional rights as an individual citizen. Seems groups of individual should be able to choose for themselves in this respect and "owners" can't choose for them. Note the word owners as in slaves (in this case, wage and/or salary slaves)and owners. Truly employment is often NOT a personal choice, but rather a matter availability and whims of circumstance.

Mar. 25 2014 12:36 PM
Fourteenth Amendment from NYC

aren't they considered people in the US?

Mar. 25 2014 12:33 PM
Larry Fisher from Hollywood, Cali

Hobby Lobby is a name I'd expect out of an early Thomas Pynchon novel.

Mar. 25 2014 12:31 PM
Kay Merkel Boruff from Dallas

Yes. I'm a liberal Republican. I am pro-choice. I am for marriage equality. I'm an Air America widow. I'm a volunteer at the Veterans Recovery Center. I'm a retired Middle School English teacher of 43 years. I worry about legislation that is introduced with the following: You have to pass it to find out what's in it. Who in Congress cannot read? Both sides of the aisle are at fault for the mess the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare. It is neither "affordable affordable affordable" nor "caring." I worry about the bigger picture: What is wrong with America? Why can't we educate out youth? Why can't we have "health care" not band aid medicine? How are we fighting about allowing company owners a mission statement that reflects their religious beliefs? I am for America where we can fight online and on air and on TV and in print about our beliefs. Thanks, again, John.

Mar. 25 2014 12:28 PM
Mike from Oregon

How can a for-profit corporation be a Christian-belief organization? Most likely, their primary legal purpose is to "maximize return to shareholders". And that's not a Christian belief.

Mar. 25 2014 12:24 PM

So, I am a corporation who's religious belief says, slavery is OK, and I don't have to pay minimum wage.

For that reason and I'll enslave whoever I want, or whoever is desperate enough to take a job with my company - They don't have to work, they can die of starvation, or give up their rights and work for me. I'm well within my rights. Right?

Who's for that?

Mar. 25 2014 12:24 PM
DC from Brooklyn, NY

I read the Brethren by Woodward and Armstrong recently and kind of understand the struggles the Justices then went through with their landmark decisions and their cavalier mistakes with others. I sincerely hope the current lineup are taking this case very seriously because if Hobby Lobby is free to deny contraception based on religious liberty, what else can they and many other corporations and business deny? Considering the track record of the veteran male Justices, I'm not holding much confidence.

Mar. 25 2014 11:16 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

@ ML from Miami FL: Thumbs up.

Corporations are not people. They are comprised of people, and each person who owns or works for the corporation gets to vote, but corporations are not individuals, do not get to vote and, if they want to stay in business, will appeal to the people who want to shop there. For example, if Hobby Lobby wins this Supreme Court case, they will lose all their female employees and they will lose all their female customers who believe that contraception is a personal decision.

Individual people vote in political elections by going to the polls, but they vote for various businesses with their wallets. Hobby Lobby might have to find out the hard way. The owners of the business may choose not to use contraception or have abortions, but the staff may well want to avail themselves of these services and as a company that hopes to make money by selling to the general public, they cannot deny benefits to their staff members.

I wonder if, for example, a store employee who has 10 children because she doesn't believe in contraception or abortion is given paid time off each time one of her children is sick and home from school...

Mar. 25 2014 10:39 AM
ML from Miami FL

NO. Hobby Lobby is not an individual with personal beliefs. If the Supreme Court allows this behavior then we'll be seeing future cases where Hobby Lobby requires their customers to be in line with the beliefs of the store's owners. "Crafts are for Christians."

Mar. 25 2014 09:38 AM
Louis Kraus from Akron, OH

We should worry less about religion and more about the ethics we are supposed to learn from our religions. Religious belief is an emotional, old brain based function. Ethics are a behavioral, new brain exercise. We need to be clear about how our brains work and learn to use our executive control to behave ethically.

Mar. 25 2014 09:31 AM

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