Civil and Human Rights

Corporations should not be allowed to discriminate

The Supreme Court this week will hear arguments on whether corporations have the same right to exercise religion as living, breathing persons. That is the key issue in the upcoming challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court has never invested corporations with basic rights to freedom of conscience and human dignity. To do so would be a profound mistake.


Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood — an arts and crafts chain and a wood manufacturer — argue that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives violates the corporations’ right to religious exercise.


Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are not religious organizations, and do not hire employees on the basis of their religion. Like all other secular businesses, they employ persons of all religious faiths. Nevertheless, these corporations argue that they exercise religion and are entitled to a religious exemption from laws that violate their business owners’ religious beliefs.


The religious free exercise right is personal, fundamental right that does not extend to corporations. From the founding on, the free exercise right has been concerned with protecting conviction, conscience and human dignity for all individuals. Corporations cannot pray, and the fundamental values at the heart of the free exercise right simply make no sense as applied to corporations.


The same faulty idea that corporations have a religious conscience was the basis for anti-LGBT legislation, recently introduced in many states, which would give businesses religious free exercise rights and allow them to refuse to serve same-sex couples. The premise of both claims is that employers do not have to respect the convictions and equal dignity of their employees and customers.


That is fundamentally wrong.


The argument that corporations have religious free exercise rights is not only legally wrong, it is also bad for business. A win for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood would give businesses license to discriminate against employees and consumers, create a competitive advantage for businesses that claim to possess religious beliefs, and create thorny problems for corporate governance.


Indeed, in Arizona, the business community, including the CEOs of Marriott, American Airlines, Apple and others, played a decisive role in convincing Gov. Jan Brewer to veto anti-LGBT legislation that would have explicitly provided religious free exercise rights for businesses such as Hobby Lobby.


It’s no wonder that leading business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have steered clear of Hobby Lobby’s case. The religious free exercise right is one constitutional right that corporate America cannot and will not defend.


Hobby Lobby and its supporters argue they are simply attempting to preserve the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, but a win for Hobby Lobby would threaten our nation’s tradition of protecting religious freedom for all in our pluralistic society.


It would allow the CEOs of secular businesses to impose their own religious beliefs on their employees, many of whom have fundamentally different beliefs about contraceptives.


Employees should not have the right to check their personal liberty and deeply held convictions at their bosses’ door.


As the wave of new anti-gay legislation demonstrates, arming businesses with religious rights would create a dangerous precedent that would give businesses a blank check to discriminate against employees or consumers whose beliefs and convictions do not conform to the CEO’s religious code. That would be a decisive setback for core American value of equality, pluralism and respect for the beliefs, convictions and dignity of all persons.


The justices should reject the notion that a corporation’s owners have the right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and deny them important federal rights.


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