Can Corporations Have Religious Beliefs?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 1 2013 2:32 PM

All Corporations Go to Heaven

The Supreme Court will soon decide if CEOs can impose their religious convictions on the people who work for them.

A pharmacist works at a Safeway Pharmacy in Great Falls, Virginia, July 29, 2009.
A pharmacist works at a Safeway pharmacy in Great Falls, Va., in 2009. The Supreme Court will need to decide soon whether corporations with religious objections to providing coverage for birth control could be forced to do so under the health care law.

Photo by Hyungwon Kang/Reuters

Remember the big dustup last summer over the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health reform initiative? It required companies with more than 50 employees to provide insurance, including for contraception, as part of their employees’ health care plans. The constitutional question was whether employers with religious objections to providing coverage for birth control could be forced to do so under the new law. The Obama administration tweaked the rules a few times to try to accommodate religious employers, first exempting some religious institutions—churches and ministries were always exempt—and then allowing companies that self-insure to use a separate insurance plan to pay and provide for the contraception. Still, religious employers objected, and lawsuits were filed, all 60 of them.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

A year later, the courts have begun to weigh in, and the answer has slowly begun to emerge: maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on whether corporations—which already enjoy significant free-speech rights—can also invoke religious freedom rights enshrined in the First Amendment. 

Last Friday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contraception mandate, rejecting a challenge from a Pennsylvania-based cabinetmaker who claimed that as a Mennonite he should not be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage to his 950 employees because the mandate violates the company’s rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The owner considers some of the contraception methods at issue—specifically, the morning-after and week-after pills—abortifacients.

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The appeals court looked carefully to the precedent created by Citizens United—the 2010 case affording corporations free-speech rights when it came to election-related speech—to determine whether corporations also enjoy constitutionally protected religious freedom. Writing for the two judges in the majority, Judge Robert Cowen found that although there was “a long history of protecting corporations’ rights to free speech,” there was no similar history of protection for the free exercise of religion. “We simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion,” he concluded. “A holding to the contrary … would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

Cowen also flagged the absolute novelty of the claims, noting that there was almost no case law suggesting that corporations can hold religious beliefs. “We are not aware of any case preceding the commencement of litigation about the Mandate, in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.” Finally he took pains to distinguish the corporation, Conestoga, from its legal owners. “Since Conestoga is distinct from the Hahns, the Mandate does not actually require the Hahns to do anything. … It is Conestoga that must provide the funds to comply with the Mandate—not the Hahns.”

Judge Kent Jordan, dissenting at length in the case, said that for-profit, secular corporations can surely avail themselves of the protections of the religion clauses. “To recognize that religious convictions are a matter of individual experience cannot and does not refute the collective character of much religious belief and observance ... Religious opinions and faith are in this respect akin to political opinions and passions, which are held and exercised both individually and collectively.”

The 3rd Circuit decision creates a significant split between the appeals courts, because a few short weeks earlier, the Colorado-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding by a 5–3 margin that corporations can be persons entitled to assert religious rights. Hobby Lobby is a chain of crafts supply stores located in 41 states. The 10th Circuit upheld an injunction blocking the contraception requirement because it offended the company owners’ religious beliefs. The majority in the 3rd Circuit wrote that it "respectfully disagrees" with the 10th Circuit. A split of this nature makes Supreme Court review almost inevitable.

The Supreme Court has long held the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to prohibit governmental regulation of religious beliefs, but a long line of cases holds that not every regulation that inflects upon your religious beliefs is unconstitutional. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from imposing a "substantial burden" on anyone’s "exercise of religion" unless it is "the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest." The Obama administration and the judges who have refused to grant injunctions contend that the burden here is insignificant, amounting to a few dollars borne indirectly by the employer to facilitate independent, private decisions made by their female employees. They also argue that they are promoting a compelling government interest in providing preventive health care to Americans. The employers and the judges who have enjoined the birth-control provision claim that they are being forced to choose between violating protected religious beliefs and facing crippling fines and that free or inexpensive birth control is available at community health centers and public clinics.

Basically, the constitutional question will come down to whether a for-profit, secular corporation can hold religious beliefs and convictions, or whether—as David Gans explains here —“the Court’s cases recognize a basic, common-sense difference between living, breathing, individuals—who think, possess a conscience, and a claim to human dignity—and artificial entities, which are created by the law for a specific purpose, such as to make running a business more efficient and lucrative.” Will Baude takes the opposite view, explaining that the 3rd Circuit’s reasoning—that “ ‘corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires’ ... would all prove too much, because they are technically true of any organizational association, including ... a church!” Baude likens the claim that corporations can never have religious freedom rights to the claim that corporations—including the New York Times—can never have free-speech rights.

Part of the problem, at least in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, is that neither corporation was designed to do business as religious entities. It has been clear since the nation’s founding that corporations enjoy rights in connection to the purposes for which they were created—which is why the administration already exempts religious employers whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and chiefly employ and serve people who share their religious tenets. This is about companies that don’t meet those criteria. As the dissenters at the 10th Circuit observed, the fact that some “spiritual corporations” have some religious purposes doesn’t make every corporation a religious entity. And as professor Elizabeth Sepper of Washington University puts it in a new law-review article on the subject: “Corporations, as conglomerate entities, exist indefinitely and independently of their shareholders. They carry out acts and affect individual lives, and have an identity that is larger than their constituent parts. Walmart is Walmart, even when Sam Walton resigns.”

The rest of the problem is self-evident. Where does it stop? Why does your boss’ religious freedom allow her to curtail your own? The dangers in allowing employers to exercise a religious veto over employee health care are obvious. Can an employer deny you access to psychiatric care if he opposes it on religious grounds? To AIDS medications? To gelatin-covered pills? Constitutional protections of a single employer’s individual rights of conscience and belief become a bludgeon by which he can dictate the most intimate health decisions of his workers, whose own religious rights and constitutional freedoms become immaterial.

Religious liberty arguments have been historically advanced in defense of the rights of slaveholders, segregationists, creationism, anti-gay bigotry, and gender inequality. The religious convictions in each instance were indisputably deeply felt and fundamental. That didn’t mean they trumped everything else. As we have advanced as a society—beyond slavery, segregation, homophobia, and sexism—we have worked to accommodate religious belief while pushing for fundamental fairness and equality. It’s never been a perfect accommodation. It can’t be. But religious liberty interests are rarely the only—or even the most important—interests at play. And suggestions that unwilling employers are forcing birth control on unwilling employees misstates the truth: Employees who choose to use contraception (as 99 percent of us will do at some point) shouldn’t do so at the sufferance of their bosses.

In 1982, in United States v. Lee, an Amish employer refused to pay his share of Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes on his employees, claiming that it violated his own religious belief in individual self-sufficiency. The Supreme Court said he had to pay the taxes regardless because “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.” And in a 1990 opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court held that religious groups bear a heavy burden in overcoming “a valid and neutral law of general applicability.” None of this guarantees how the Supreme Court will decide the contraception mandate. If recent history is any predictor, it may be as fractious as the Affordable Care Act decisions themselves.

The guarantee of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution was intended to protect fragile minorities from crushing religious burdens imposed by the wealthy and powerful. The notion that secular corporations—created by government to maximize shareholder profits and limit liability—might lay claim to their owners’ human rights of religious conscience is doubly astounding when you consider that their principal reason for being is to dissociate themselves from the frailties of human conscience in the first place.

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