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If you thought the debate about Obamacare was over, think again. The Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have collided once more, this time over the ACA’s requirement that all new health care plans cover contraception for female employees. The owners of the national corporation Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties have objected to this stipulation on the grounds that it violates their religious freedom under the First Amendment, and the fight has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was argued in late March, and like the first ACA case in 2012, this one could be decided this summer. As we get closer to a possible ruling, let’s go over just how this case lines up with the Constitutional questions.
What exactly are the corporations claiming?
Hobby Lobby’s owners are evangelical Christians, and Conestoga’s owners are Mennonite Christians. They claim that their beliefs directly oppose the ACA’s birth control requirement, specifically that employees’ health care plans must cover methods like Plan B and IUDs that they see as “[ending] human life after conception.” Hobby Lobby is arguing that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), it can refuse to provide these birth control methods to employees. Conestoga is challenging the requirement squarely on the basis of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.
How do the arguments line up with our laws?
The two arguments challenge the ACA in two different ways, but they both have the same basic idea: Religious freedom exempts them from the birth control requirement. The RFRA states that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Both of these documents aim to keep the government from infringing upon a person’s religious beliefs and practices. But the question is, can a corporation claim the same rights?
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that corporations have free speech rights, effectively stating that corporations are people. Now, on its face, this seems ridiculous — a corporation is clearly a business entity, not an individual person. But even in a purely legal sense, this doesn’t add up. To “incorporate” a business literally means to make it an entity that is legally separate from its owners. Thus, a corporation, by definition, is neither a person or a representation of a person.
But let’s humor the court for a second.
Just for a moment, let’s say that corporations are people. Even if that was true, a corporation still shouldn’t be able to claim exemption to a law just because its owners practice a certain religion. Since there is no Constitutional definition of what is and is not a religion, that means anyone can conceivably slap some beliefs together and call it a religion. That leaves the door open to any person claiming an exemption to any law based on religion. Justice Scalia recognized this possibility in the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case.
Scalia said, “Laws… are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices…. Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Scalia recognized that allowing such religious exemptions would effectively allow everyone to write their own rules.
What is religious freedom, really?
The real issue in these cases is that they will decide whether corporations have a religious right to deny employees certain kinds of birth control. The key word there is “deny.” Religious freedom, the freedom to practice one’s own private religious beliefs without government interference, is paramount to what our country stands for. But “religious freedom” does not entail the power to force your beliefs on other people. That effectively restricts their religious freedom, as well as their basic civil liberties. The owners of these corporations have the right to act in Christian ways as much as any of us do, but that does not mean that they have the freedom to dictate the lives of their employees using those ideals. This summer the Court would do well to make that distinction: It is crucial to upholding the freedoms of choice and belief that our government aims to protect.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ellis Arnold at Ellis.firstname.lastname@example.org.