On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear cases from five states seeking to keep their same-sex marriage bans in place, effectively handing a tacit victory to the gay rights movement. In keeping silent, the Court prevented the religious preferences of some from limiting the life choices of others.
Such gracious restraint from interference, however, was not exercised this summer in a different high-profile case. In late June, the Supreme Court addressed whether certain companies should be exempt from a federal requirement to cover contraceptives in their health plans. The Court ruled in favor of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, along with other “closely held” corporations, declaring that they may be exempt from the contraceptive mandate if they have religious objections. Consequently, when a woman steps into a pharmacy, she may be limited in what products her insurance covers due to her employer’s faith. Even if this image seems esoteric, it serves as a reminder of the decision’s potential ramifications.
A notable controversy associated with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is that a corporation is now treated as though it is a person with religious rights. Yet a corporation is not a person — and if it were, who would it be? The owners, managers, and employees all take on the roles of gears in a whole system, and each has his or her own constitutional rights that should be equally protected. Regardless of their roles, the legal system is broadly expected to prevent rather than support one person’s beliefs from directing the private life of another, and due to the decision, the religious preferences of the firm can now supersede those of its employees.
Furthermore, long-standing precedent has allowed corporations to enjoy a legal privilege that individuals cannot: limited liability. This dictates that the debt of an incorporated entity cannot fall on its private shareholders, thereby separating corporations and the private lives of their owners. Yet the Hobby Lobby decision counters that separation by allowing an owner to impose his or her personal religious beliefs on the entire company. The ability for corporations to simultaneously enjoy limited liability and individual religious liberties is inconsistent. On one hand, an owner can be privately excused for the company’s wrongdoings and call that an institutional freedom, all the while exerting private religious beliefs on employees and calling it a personal freedom.
Yet “freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth,” Austrian doctor and thinker Viktor Frankl has said. The other half, he says, is responsibility. Before the Hobby Lobby decision, owners could enjoy their institutional freedoms while upholding their institutional obligations, such as abiding by laws that require they provide a certain level of health insurance. The new possibility of exemption seems to disrupt the balance between rights and responsibilities.
In addition to this disputable sense of balance, the decision to acknowledge a corporation’s freedom of religion could suddenly open a Pandora’s box of all sorts of claims by business owners. Here, things could get fuzzy. Some Jehova’s Witnesses, for example, see the refusal of blood transfusions as a nonnegotiable religious stance. Could an owner cite this as a reason to avoid paying for employees’ insurance plans covering such a procedure?
Justice Kennedy directly addressed this issue, writing, “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious belief.” One might then wonder about non-medical religious convictions of business owners. For instance, there may be some who object to hiring people in same-sex relationships. If such claims would go unaddressed and the Hobby Lobby decision is indeed limited to the contraceptive mandate, as the Kennedy statement implies, then it inadvertently sides with a particular religious belief. This may actually be harmful to societal freedom of religion, and it happens to only leave women’s coverage vulnerable to exemptions.
In a 5-4 ruling in which all three female justices dissented, the Court decided to rule in favor of protecting freedom of religion. While the intentions are admirable, the decision does not address the diverse religions of different business owners impartially. Furthermore, within a particular company of owners subscribing to a particular faith, it seems inevitable that other complications would arise since each employee has a unique set of beliefs.
The Hobby Lobby ruling then allows one group’s ideology to encroach on another’s right to choose. As a result, women may now find that their employer’s faith has come between themselves, their doctors, and their health choices. This might only be the beginning of a pattern. Novelist Charlotte Brontë wrote, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This week, when the Supreme Court sustained appeals court rulings that permitted same-sex marriages, it admirably protected the wills and freedoms of individuals. While this may have also been the Court’s intention in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it had not done so equitably.
Claire Lazar is a member of the Class of 2017.