When I first heard last year that Hobby Lobby and other for-profit corporations were claiming religious liberty rights for themselves, the notion sounded so ludicrous that it felt like a joke. After all, corporations do not have bodies or souls, do not worship, do not get baptized or bar mitzvahed, and do not bend their knee in prayer.
Corporations are legal constructions, set up to be wholly separate entities from their owners. This wall of separation exists to differentiate the actions of corporations from their owners and to shield the owners from personal liability for corporate debts and lawsuits. Despite this reality, the Supreme Court took Hobby Lobby’s claims seriously and heard the case in March. The Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby on June 30, ruling that corporations do, in fact, have religious liberty.
I’m not laughing anymore.
Giving for-profit corporations religious liberty is bad for women’s health, LGBT equality, an expanding range of other issues; and religion itself. Yes, the Supreme Court limited this right to “closely held” corporations—those that are managed and operated by a small group of shareholders—but it didn’t precisely define what it meant by that designation. As many as 90 percent of American companies can be considered “closely held.” And now their owners can refuse to obey laws they don’t like, as long as the refusal is based on a sincerely held religious belief.
The Hobby Lobby decision is also highly one-sided. It acknowledges the religious liberty and beliefs of corporate owners but ignores those of the employees. As Cathleen Kaveny wrote in a piece for Commonweal:
While the ruling recognizes that corporations have free exercise rights, it identifies those rights solely with the owners of the corporation. The legitimate interests of other corporate stakeholders, particularly the employees, who may not share their employer’s religious views, evidently have no standing. In this instance, it seems that more money buys you more religious freedom—and more freedom to infringe on the choices of others.
Ever since the Affordable Care Act became law, conservatives who are opposed to its contraception requirement have tried to claim the moral high ground as they fought to destroy it. Never mind that houses of worship are exempt from the requirement—or that religiously affiliated institutions have an accommodation that allows them to neither pay for nor administer contraceptive coverage in their health plans.
Never mind that providing women with no-cost contraception is one of the surest ways to reduce abortions because it reduces the number of unintended pregnancies. Given this, you would think that support for the contraception requirement would be a no-brainer for religious conservatives opposed to abortion.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Religious conservatives may end up regretting what now seems like a victory in the Hobby Lobby decision. Legal principles from the ruling will likely migrate into other court decisions, and today’s victors could become tomorrow’s victims as they find themselves coerced by the religious beliefs of someone with whom they disagree.
Beyond that, the Hobby Lobby ruling may spark a public backlash against conservatives’ religious liberty claims in general. Their alleged moral high ground may be sinking. Increasingly, their claims seem to be overreaching, harmful, and unfair. A few days after the Hobby Lobby ruling, conservative faith leaders sent a public letter to the White House, asking for a religious exemption in an upcoming executive order that would forbid those with federal contracts from discriminating against LGBT people in employment. The signers of the letter wanted religiously affiliated institutions to be exempt from this requirement, urging the president to allow these institutions to have it both ways—receive taxpayer dollars and discriminate against LGBT people—as long as their discrimination is based on a sincerely held religious belief.
Given actions such as these, it is more important than ever to assert the importance of religious liberty for all Americans, not just a select few. We must promote an understanding of religious liberty that includes both the freedom to exercise one’s beliefs and the freedom not to be coerced into following beliefs that are not one’s own.
Religious liberty was one of our nation’s first freedoms. It is far too precious to be squandered on for-profit corporations that can use it for competitive advantage or to advance a boss’s particular theology. In a pluralistic democracy such as ours—in which religious diversity and devotion flourish precisely because the state does not regulate religion—we must intensify our efforts to safeguard religious liberty so that it doesn’t devolve into a divisive weapon but instead remains a protective shield.
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