Can a for-profit corporation have religious beliefs? If so, who defines the corporation’s beliefs? Is it the CEO? The Board of Directors? The shareholders? Do the corporation’s religious beliefs out-weigh those of its employees? If so, are there any limits on those beliefs? May the corporation cite those beliefs in denying service to customers? What constitutes a religion? What constitutes a sincerely held religious belief?
These are just a few of the questions at stake in the case now being considered by the Supreme Court of the United States.
As you most certainly know, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have filed suit claiming that their religious beliefs should exempt them from complying with the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employer-provided insurance policies provide access to contraceptives. Both corporations claim that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, IUDs, Plan B and several other types of female contraceptives are not mere preventatives. They consider them forms of abortion, which is forbidden by their religions.
The purpose of government – any government – is to solve conflicts of individual rights. When these rights are in conflict, it is left to the government and its courts to decide where one’s rights stop and another’s begin. For example, I enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest. You enjoy driving your loud ATV in the forest. We both have a right to our happiness, so whose rights prevail? It is precisely because of such conflicts that we have laws and regulations.
But, what if, instead of conflicting rights, we have conflicting beliefs? For example, I believe that science can prove our world and all its creatures are the products of evolution taking place over millions of years. Others believe that God created the world in six days. We can each hold to our beliefs without causing harm to the other. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, in this case, your beliefs neither break my arm nor pick my pocket.
But in the Hobby Lobby case, the female employees can legitimately claim damages if the corporation refuses to include contraceptives as part of the health insurance plan. The women’s health needs will be treated differently than other employees’. They will have to pay out of pocket to purchase contraceptives, even if those pharmaceuticals are needed for medical purposes, not pregnancy prevention. Does the application of the drug and the need factor into the religious beliefs of the corporation? If so, does the corporation get to decide when it will and won’t pay for the pharmaceuticals? Can the corporation demand a review of its employees’ medical records?
And what if a corporation founded by Christian Scientists decides that none of its employees should have health care at all…that they should simply pray, instead? What if that corporation considers the resulting tax is an infringement on its beliefs? What if a corporation cites religious beliefs in order to deny employment or service to women, gays, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, tall people, short people, or fat people? What if a hospital or clinic decides to subject patients to a religious test before acting to save their lives? It has taken centuries for our nation to extend the rights guaranteed by our Founders in the Constitution to all of our citizens, and there are still many inequities.
If the Court allows people and corporations to treat others differently based on mere beliefs, the disparities and conflicts will never end.