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Elizabeth B. Wydra Headshot

Will the Supreme Court Give Corporations the Right to Impose Religious Beliefs on Employees?

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HOBBY LOBBY
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The Supreme Court often saves its blockbuster cases for the very last day of its term, which ends this year on June 30. On this final day of the term, the Court will be handing down a decision with potentially broad implications not only for the rights of women and workers, but also for corporate personhood and religious liberty.

The Court will confront these issues in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc., and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Burwell, two related cases that challenge the Affordable Care Act's requirement that most company insurance plans must cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives. The owners of the companies challenging the contraception coverage provision argue that requiring their companies to provide coverage for certain forms of contraception violates their religious beliefs. They have sued for an exemption from the ACA contraception coverage requirement under a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that protects religious free exercise rights as they have been protected under the First Amendment for the first 200 or so years of our nation's history.

Never in those more than 200 years have corporations like Hobby Lobby been understood to share in the right of the free exercise of religion, and for good reason -- our nation's protection of religious liberty has been seen as a personal right, inextricably linked to the human capacity to express devotion to a God and act on the basis of reason and conscience. Business corporations, obviously, lack the basic human capacities -- reason, dignity and conscience -- at the core of the right to free exercise of religion.

Certainly some incorporated entities, such as churches and other houses of worship, are given free exercise protections (and religious organizations are, in fact, given exemptions from the contraception coverage mandate). But both the law and common sense tell us that there is an important difference between a church and a for-profit corporation formed to engage in commerce. From the employee's perspective, this difference is plain: when you sign up to work for a nationwide craft store or cabinet maker -- or burger joint, airline, or big-box store -- you likely wouldn't expect to be subject to the religious beliefs of the owners of the company that employs you, as opposed to an employee hired to teach religion and other classes at an explicitly religious school.

The religious free-exercise claims of Hobby Lobby's owners turn first principles of religious freedom, as well as fundamental tenets of corporate law, on their head. Hobby Lobby's owners want their to have their cake and eat it, too: they want all the benefits of operating through the corporate form but none of the responsibilities. In the balance are the rights of Hobby Lobby's employees, women and their families who risk losing important health benefits they are legally entitled to under the Affordable Care Act.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act had reason to celebrate two years ago when, in another ruling handed down by the Court on the very last day of the Supreme Court Term, a majority of the Court upheld the ACA as constitutional. If the Justices follow more than 200 years of constitutional law and history, not to mention basic principles of corporate law, the Court should hand another victory to Obamacare. Of course, whether they will or not is another matter. Either way, we'll find out soon enough how this year's Obamacare sequel turns out.