Hobby Lobby's corporate religious exemption

By Kira Dault| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Social Justice Spirituality

Late last week, the 10th US Circuit Court issued a decision in the case of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius et al. (See Scott Alessi's comments about earlier rounds of the lawsuit here.)

The lawsuit was filed by Hobby Lobby against the federal government, particularly in relation to the HHS mandate that companies provide insurance that covers most forms of contraception to its employees. The current administration has tried to work with some religious leaders (including the USCCB) to reach a compromise whereby religiously-affiliated organizations would be exempt from the mandate, creating a work-around that would allow insurance companies to provide contraceptive coverage to women directly at no expense.

The exemption to the mandate, however, applies only to those organizations that are explicitly not-for-profit and are religiously affiliated. This means that houses of worship are certainly exempt. Hospitals, universities, and charities are also covered under the exemption.

Hobby Lobby, however, is a family-owned, for-profit arts and crafts store. They also own a Christian-themed for-profit bookstore. Therefore, the lower court decision stated that, because the corporation is for-profit, the mandate cannot apply.

That changed last week, when the 10th US Circuit Court issued a 165-page decision, which stated that because some money-making corporations are considered persons under the law, they can also hold and exercise religious belief. Therefore, Hobby Lobby should not be required to pay a fine for not providing insurance that covers contraception to their employees.

This ruling will undoubtedly be viewed as a victory to the USCCB and those who strongly oppose the HHS mandate based on the claim that it violates religious freedom. However, we ought to be concerned about what this ruling says about corporations.

If for-profit corporations can seek religious exemptions from governmental regulations, then they might be able to seek exemption from legislation such as the Americans with Disability Act, which requires businesses to accommodate people who have disabilities. But churches and religious institutions are exempt from many of the requirements in the ADA. Likewise, churches and religious institutions are often exempt from other laws that prevent discrimination.

If a corporation can demonstrate that it has a religious objection to any of the laws that are in place (though I do not know how a publicly-owned corporation, for example, would establish its religious character in court), then might it manage to seek exemption from laws that protect its employees from discrimination?

I appreciate that the owners of Hobby Lobby do not personally agree with the use of contraception. However, part of owning, operating, and benefiting from the profits of a business in the United States means participating in the full extent of the civic life of the country.