By Ana Choi
On Tuesday, March 25, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for the combined cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius. The two cases deal with the following question: can a for-profit corporation claim a religious freedom exception from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act? On the one hand there is the government’s interest in making birth control available to all classes of women, and on the other hand there is the corporation owners’ interest in setting corporate policies that accord with their personal religious beliefs.
The challengers rely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which declares that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden is “the least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest.” The problem, however, is that it is unclear whether a corporation can be a “person” with the right to exercise religion. During the oral arguments, Justice Sotomayor asked, “We have, according to our jurisprudence, 200 years of corporations speaking in its own interests. But where are the cases that show that a corporation exercises religion?” Justice Alito, on the other hand, was of the opinion that “there isn’t anything inherent in participating in a for-profit activity that’s inconsistent with…a free exercise claim.”
Regardless of which side is correct in terms of doctrine, it at least seems clear that recognizing a corporation’s right to exercise religion could lead to problematic results. In his brief, Solicitor General Verrilli argued that such a recognition could enable businesses to cite to religious beliefs in order to avoid complying with minimum wage and hiring discrimination laws, Social Security taxes, and vaccination requirements. A Huffington Post article suggests that recognition of the right could also “open the door to more controversial laws like Arizona’s recently debated ‘religious freedom’ bill, which would allow businesses to refuse to serve LGBT people.”
Religious beliefs can be used to justify a wide array of behaviors, and because of their inherently subjective nature, there is no way to evaluate the “correctness” or “acceptability” of a religious belief. Of course, the tension between respect for religious beliefs and the need for uniform compliance with legal obligations already exists in the context of individuals. However, corporations have greater power and greater reach than individuals. Thus, if granted with the right to exercise religion, corporations also have greater potential to infringe upon the rights of others by exercising this right. In determining the question of whether corporations have the right to exercise religion, this differential effect should be taken into account.