The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide health care benefits to their employees, including access to all forms of contraception. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. refuses to allow its employees to use the insurance under their benefits plan to pay for particular forms of contraception because the people who comprise the governing body of the corporation object to the use of some contraceptive on religious grounds. One of Hobby Lobby’s employees sued the company, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
On June 30, 2014, in the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court affirmed the religious right of corporations to restrict their employees’ access to certain forms of contraception under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). SCOTUS granted Hobby Lobby—and by extension, other “closely held,” for-profit corporations, an exemption under RFRA in order to accommodate religious beliefs with which the Affordable Care Act interferes. The Court’s ruling did not do anything new, but it built upon a dangerous precedent of expanding the rights of corporations by considering them people.
RFRA allows people to claim a religious exemption to government laws of “general applicability” based on sincerely held religious beliefs. This means that those whose religious beliefs contradict a punishable law meant to apply to everyone can ask for exemptions from practicing that law as long as the law does not fulfill a compelling government interest– something like national security or the preservation of multiple human lives, etc.—and there are other, less restrictive ways to achieve the government interest in question. For example, in this case, the government interest is the provision of affordable access to contraceptives. The government seeks to achieve this by requiring employers to provide health insurance that covers a wide array of contraceptive methods. Hobby Lobby argues that demanding corporations to fund benefits that supply these contraceptives is not the least restrictive means, even if it fulfills a compelling government interest.
The problem here is not the application of an exemption under RFRA. That is perfectly legitimate. The issue lies in the treatment of a corporation as a person, yet again. By considering Hobby Lobby a person in this case, SCOTUS allowed corporations to escape enforcement of laws in order to protect the religious freedom of those corporations. But corporations are comprised of multiple individuals, and for-profit corporations generally make more money than individual people. They also have the ability to affect the lives of their employees. In this case, although Hobby Lobby employees can gain access to the contraceptives of their choice through other government-sponsored and mandated means, it does not make sense to allow Hobby Lobby an exemption from the law in order to protect Hobby Lobby’s religious freedom.
It is perfectly reasonable for the individuals running Hobby Lobby to personally avoid funding for contraceptives that they oppose on religious grounds. This is their religious right to do so as people. But when those individuals together comprise a corporation, they now enjoy the exercise of that religious right separately from their individual exercise of that right. Now they are backed by the profits of that corporation and the enormous influence of that corporation. In addition, any person who runs a corporation has the ability to hold his or her individual, religious beliefs, despite the practices of the corporation.
Think about it. By giving corporations the ability to exercise their religious freedom or to demand exemptions under their religious freedom, we give some individuals—those running corporations—the ability to maintain their individual beliefs, but also to have extra influence through their corporate identity.
The mistake SCOTUS made is not the ruling in Hobby Lobby, but the earlier rulings that changed the status of corporations and started granting them rights as people. Until the Court reverses those decisions, the United States heads down a dangerous legal path where the enormous influence of corporations goes unchecked and drastically alters the state of our democracy.
Misha Euceph is a fourth year philosophy major at UCI. She can be reached at email@example.com.