Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, the latest Supreme Court case, has been rightly condemned by much of the liberal media. For those who haven’t been paying attention, SCOTUS basically ruled that closely held corporations (despite the name, these are not small companies) can be exempted from giving their workers certain forms of birth control because corporations have religious rights. This logic flows naturally from the idea that corporations are persons (part of US jurisprudence since the Gilded Age) and that they are entitled to 1st Amendment protections (upheld in Citizens’ United, which said that corporations’ free speech rights included unlimited political campaign spending).
Conservative commentators have chided liberals and feminists for making simplistic assertions about women’s rights rather than addressing the case itself. Liberals trumpet Justice Ginsburg’s point that birth control can cost a woman working at minimum wage a month’s salary. But this ignores the fact that Hobby Lobby will still be providing workers with many forms of birth control.
The important issues with the Hobby Lobby case are not specific to the case or Hobby Lobby; instead, it’s the precedent set by the case that’s truly frightening. Fortunately, I don’t have to think up all the repercussions of the case – Justice Ginsburg outlined the issues with the ruling in an amazing 35-page dissent (that I urge you to read in full from page 60). Here, I’ll summarize and extrapolate from her well-reasoned arguments:
Can a Corporation Even Exercise Religion?
According to Ginsburg, no Court decision before Hobby Lobby has made it clear that a corporation can even exercise religion – if it can’t, it isn’t eligible to get any exemption for religious purposes. This would make sense, since the Court has always defined a corporation as “an artificial being.” Considering that a corporation is established for the purpose of making money, why is it being given “religious rights” exemptions generally reserved for religious organizations?
Why Restrict the Exemption to “Closely-Held” Corporations?
Justice Alito points out that closely-held corporations are owned and controlled by a single family, but this doesn’t mean that these companies have a small number of stakeholders. Some are huge, with over 100,000 employees, and billions in revenues. How such a company, with thousands of people of diverse beliefs, can claim to exercise religion is hard to understand. Moreover, letting the corporation take on the religion of its directors contradicts the very purpose of incorporation, which is to divorce the company from its directors (directors are not personally responsible for their company’s debts, for example).
What Other Healthcare Exemptions Can Corporations Claim?
Ginsburg asserts that this decision might spur claims by other closely-held companies’ executives, with scary implications for healthcare. Would this exemption extend to Scientologists opposed to antidepressants, Muslims opposed to gelatin (made from pig) coated pills, or Catholics opposed to vaccinations? If certain religious claims were considered valid, while others weren’t, wouldn’t this count as discrimination against religions? And if the Court judged each of these individual cases on whether the government has a compelling interest in enforcing the law, why did they deem that there wasn’t such an interest in Hobby Lobby? Surely, the Court must consider protecting women’s reproductive health a crucial task.
What Other Laws Can Corporations Challenge?
Can a corporation make a “religious rights” claim against paying the minimum wage or giving women equal pay for similar work? You may think that this is just fear-mongering, that such claims obviously won’t be brought forth. Think again. Some religious leaders want an exemption to allow them to discriminate against LGBT people in the workplace.
It’s a strange country where fundamentalists can decide what laws they want to obey. “Freedom of religion” has become a sorry excuse for skirting unwanted laws. Meanwhile, Muslim Guantanamo Bay detainees aren’t allowed to pray communally during the month of Ramadan because the government holds that they are not “persons” entitled to religious rights.
Welcome to the American “justice” system, where corporations, not people, are considered people.