According to Gallup pollsters, more than 9 in 10 Americans believe in God. It follows, then, that religious people own many businesses in this country. They might be Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, Christian Scientist, Quaker, Muslim, Buddhist, or something else.
Depending on his or her religion, the boss might believe that gambling is a sin; that prayer cures illness; that war is always wrong; or that gay people are condemned to hell. Their employees, however, are likely to hold different beliefs. In fact, given our nation’s diversity, a vast mix of faiths and philosophies can be found in America’s workplaces—increasingly including no religious belief at all.
These differences are important to note in light of several lawsuits that secular businesses are bringing against the Obama administration. The businesses are owned by Christians who object to a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring their companies to provide contraceptive coverage for female employees. Christian owners are suing because they believe that some or all forms of contraception are evil, and they want their businesses to be exempt from following the law. In essence, the owners are claiming that their for-profit companies have the same rights to religious liberty as human beings.
Some courts have ruled against the companies and others have sided with them, making it all but certain that the Supreme Court will hear one of the lawsuits this term or next. Many issues underlie these cases, including whether a for-profit corporation has the right to “exercise” religion; whether the contraceptive mandate applies to the corporation or its owners; and whether the religious beliefs of the owners run through their corporation, a wholly separate and legally distinct entity.
I have to say that a corporation with religious liberty sounds more like a comedy sketch than a court decision. Think about it: How does a corporation freely exercise religion? Does it go to church or synagogue? Bend its knee in prayer? Bring a covered dish to the Sunday school picnic?
But this is no laughing matter. If the Supreme Court hears one of these cases and rules in favor of the business, it will set a dangerous precedent that would open the door to all kinds of “moral” objections by employers who don’t want to follow a particular law or regulation.
A company owned by a Christian Scientist, for instance, could refuse to provide health insurance to its employees. A company owned by a Catholic could fire an employee for getting divorced, having an abortion, being gay, getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, or any number of things that violate Catholic teaching. A company owned by a Scientologist could refuse to hire people who have been in therapy.
Given how many business owners in this country are religious—and how many would love a legal excuse to disobey laws they dislike—a Supreme Court ruling granting religious liberty to corporations would result in chaos and a rash of unintended consequences.
There is another reason the Court should not grant religious liberty to companies that don’t want to provide contraceptive coverage to their female employees. To do so would be to enshrine the religious liberty of employers over their female workers, many of whom use birth control as a matter of conscience and faith. It would also put the government in the unconstitutional position of favoring one religion over another—in this case, favoring religions that disapprove of contraception over those that view it as a moral good.
There are more of the latter than the former. Religious support for birth control is longstanding and strong and includes evangelical traditions. A remarkable report by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good spells out this support, providing an important counterweight to religious conservatives who claim a moral monopoly in their opposition.
The report was released last year and is titled “A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, and Maternal, and Children’s Health.” It links family planning to fewer abortions, healthier babies and mothers, stronger families, and human flourishing. Beyond that, the report makes the case for affordable health insurance, publicly funded family planning, and accessible reproductive health care.
Let’s hope that when the Supreme Court eventually rules on whatever case it selects, it adheres to our founders’ intent—that the First Amendment should apply to human beings, not corporate entities that have neither bodies nor souls. If the Supreme Court rules as it should, “Inc. God We Trust” will simply be the name of a skit on “The Colbert Report,” rather than a disastrous legal ruling by the highest court in the land.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative