Charles C. Haynes: Do corporations have religious freedom?

2014-01-26T00:30:00Z Charles C. Haynes: Do corporations have religious freedom?Charles C. Haynes Washington La Crosse Tribune
January 26, 2014 12:30 am  • 

If you thought Citizens United — the 2010 Supreme Court decision upholding free speech rights for corporations — was controversial, you haven’t seen anything yet.

In March, the high court will hear arguments in two linked cases — Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius — that will require the justices to determine whether corporations have religious freedom rights under the First Amendment.

At first blush, corporate religious freedom may strike many people as absurd. After all, as one judge put it, corporations “don’t pray, worship or observe sacraments.”

But like most First Amendment conundrums, the questions raised by religious freedom claims from private businesses are complicated and contentious — and the answers will have profound implications for defining the future of religious liberty in America.

Both cases before the Supreme Court involve challenges to a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring for-profit businesses to provide coverage for contraception in health insurance plans.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are private companies owned by deeply religious families — evangelical and Mennonite respectively — who believe that life begins at conception. On grounds of religious conscience, they cannot offer employees insurance plans that cover certain types of birth control (such as the “morning after” pill). Refusal to do so, however, subjects them to millions of dollars in fines.

Both corporations sued on the grounds that the contraception mandate violates their free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law passed by Congress in 1993 to “restore” free exercise protections that many believed the Supreme Court had unduly restricted in a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith).

The threshold question for the justices is whether these businesses have standing to make a religious freedom claim.

Does the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause apply to for-profit corporations, and, if so, are such corporations “persons” for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?

Appellate courts have given conflicting answers. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, companies like Hobby Lobby may assert free exercise claims. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, ruling, “a for-profit, secular corporation cannot engage in the exercise of religion.”

Corporations, of course, are often treated as “persons” for legal purposes. And nonprofit religious corporations — congregations, parishes, charities and the like — have long been able to assert religious freedom claims under the First Amendment. But until now, the Supreme Court has never considered whether for-profit corporations have religious freedom rights.

The answer, I would argue, should not turn on the “profit” versus “nonprofit” distinction, but rather on the principles and policies that guide the operation of the business.

Hobby Lobby, for example, commits to “honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” And Conestoga Wood is operated entirely by a family of devout Mennonites who “integrate their faith into their daily lives, including their work,” according to court documents.

It should not be difficult to determine when corporations have policies that articulate a commitment to religious principles and practices that seek to apply those principles. Few corporations would qualify, but those that do should have corporate free-exercise rights.

Making money, in and of itself, shouldn’t define a business as “secular.” Religious people should be free to enter the world of business without giving up their right to religious freedom — as long as the business they run is clearly committed to their religious principles and objectives.

Recognition of free-exercise rights for these and similar companies would not, however, settle the question of whether these corporations are entitled to an exemption from the contraception mandate. But it would require the government to apply RFRA by demonstrating a compelling state interest — and no less restrictive way of achieving that interest — before denying the exemption.

With all the complications corporate religious freedom may bring — finding alternative ways to provide contraception coverage, for example, if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga win an exemption under RFRA — the benefits to a free society far outweigh the costs.

When people of faith chose to live out that faith in the world of business, they should not be put to what the Supreme Court once called “the cruel choice” between following their God and making a profit.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(20) Comments

  1. RemoteEmployee
    Report Abuse
    RemoteEmployee - January 27, 2014 7:36 pm
    Given this logic, a corporation operating in the US and owned by people of the Islam faith,. could require their employees to bow and pray to Mecca 5 times a day. And if the employees don't like it, they can quit and go find another job (maybe one of those 250,000 jobs Scott Walker promised). This is definitely not the US I want to live in. Beliefs are personal. Work is public.
  2. Bill O'Rights
    Report Abuse
    Bill O'Rights - January 26, 2014 9:21 pm
    Redwall--Do you have the information I asked of you last week? If so, you can post it here. In case you forgot, here is my post and what I, and others, hoped you would provide:

    Redwall--Just give us the 3 or 4 worst lies and 1 or 2 of the Zumach comments that were based on ignorance. All you have to do is list them off. That should be very simple and easy for you to do, based on your what you just posted.
  3. Redwall
    Report Abuse
    Redwall - January 26, 2014 8:21 pm
    This is the first of Haynes' articles that I agree with.

  4. tower
    Report Abuse
    tower - January 26, 2014 7:26 pm
    Montee, my point was your example of making people convert to a religion and not to one of its tenets. Of course I see something wrong with Hobby Lobby, you need to not jump to conclusions.
  5. tower
    Report Abuse
    tower - January 26, 2014 7:21 pm
    I see your point about the females. I will update my manuals. As far as the live animals. If it was good enough for the Great Temple's tribute to God it is good enough for me.
  6. Monteee
    Report Abuse
    Monteee - January 26, 2014 5:13 pm
    But Hobby Lobby pushes its employees to use the rhythm method.

    The owners of Hobby Lobby are pushing their religious beliefs onto their employees. Don't you see anything wrong with that?
  7. Bill O'Rights
    Report Abuse
    Bill O'Rights - January 26, 2014 3:38 pm
    You would kill an animal!!!??? I was with you right up until then (I assume the "bull" on the altar was the blasphemy that is in the wrong version of the Bible and you were rightfully destroying those) although I'm not so confident that letting female employees wear skirts should be allowed. After all, men might have an impure thought if the sinful females moved wrong and some of their leg above the ankle was able to be seem by the males.
  8. tower
    Report Abuse
    tower - January 26, 2014 2:51 pm
    Bill, corps are individuals too. I always required by employees to attend the burning bull on the alter as I knew it pleased God. I have personally stoned my females employees who showed up with nylons on while wearing wool skirts. Religion belongs in the work place as long as I got to pick it. Fri after closing I plan to sacrifice a lamb, want to come?
  9. tower
    Report Abuse
    tower - January 26, 2014 2:46 pm
    Sorry Montee but a better example would be the Skogen family mandating contraception by the rhythm method. Hobby Lobby doesn't push people to be born again.
  10. Bill O'Rights
    Report Abuse
    Bill O'Rights - January 26, 2014 1:19 pm
    Who will decide what are "religious beliefs"? What is to stop any individual business owner from claiming that they have "religious beliefs" that allow them to hire 10 year olds to operate punch presses and saws? What about the children of Ham in the OT that for centuries was used as a justification for slavery and legal discrimination against dark skinned people? Can't a business owner claim that females can only hold jobs in his business that have no authority over male workers? Why can't I start a business and claim that my "religious beliefs" allow me to pay wages that are below the legal minimum wage? Can a corporate owner claim that they believe it is OK to pollute the environment because God will clean it up if He wants to?

    As usual, I don't expect any reasonable answers to my questions that are from people who want the Supreme Court to allow corporation owners to impose their "religious beliefs" on their employees.
  11. Monteee
    Report Abuse
    Monteee - January 26, 2014 10:29 am
    And what if there aren't any other jobs?

    A company owner can have any personal beliefs he/she wants. Imposing those beliefs on the employees is absolutely tyrannical. Hobby Lobby is not a church. It's a retail store chain.

    The Skogens are a Catholic family. Do they require their Festival Foods employees to be Catholic? No, they don't.
  12. hlange
    Report Abuse
    hlange - January 26, 2014 9:28 am
    It seems that many of th replies here object to a company (those who own it) having beliefs that are transmitted to the workplace while at the same time they would have that company operate according to beliefs of the posters. Would you work for a company that violates your belief system? How many here would work for the companies that they decry on a daily basis such as LHI Hobby Lobby, Chik-fil-la? Is it right for someone to refuse to work for a company or person that holds different beliefs and acts on those beliefs? Should a member of PETA that is on public assistance be forced to work for ADM because a job is available and therefore the public can be relieved of the burdan? Can you force your company to close on Saturday and be open on Sunday because it would match your beliefs?
    Should the Government be able to force a privately owned company or a person to do any of those things?
    I don't think so. If you don't like the benefits of your current job, suck it up or change jobs.
  13. Monteee
    Report Abuse
    Monteee - January 26, 2014 8:58 am
    Keeping religion out of government, and government out of religion. As religion is a completely private matter, the government must remain neutral at all times.

    Personally, I would rather see ObamaCare be eradicated and have the people hold tyrannical employers accountable in court. Employees of Hobby Lobby should sue their employer for trying to force its religious agenda on them. Hobby Lobby is not a church; it's a retail store company. It has no business dictating any religious beliefs on its employees.
  14. ahasp
    Report Abuse
    ahasp - January 26, 2014 8:58 am
    Both of these cases involve Christianity. The two sacraments called for by Christ were baptism and communion. If these corporations haven't been baptized and haven't taken communion, they shouldn't be able to claim an exception.

    In His discussion with the rich, young ruler, Christ made it clear that people may have to choose between wealth and following Christ. Christ also stated that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. The owners of these businesses need to decide if they want to follow their beliefs or if they want to be rich. Christ made it clear that it is very difficult to do both.
  15. Truthsayer
    Report Abuse
    Truthsayer - January 26, 2014 8:06 am
    Our Constitution was designed to keep RELIGION out of governance.....that's why God, Jesus and Christian were among many religious words purposely left OUT of the Constitution.
  16. geo
    Report Abuse
    geo - January 26, 2014 7:15 am
    This is a tyranny issue. The court will decide whether the mandate is the "typical" government tyranny that the Constitution was designed to preclude.
  17. Skylar67
    Report Abuse
    Skylar67 - January 26, 2014 6:57 am
    " long as the business they run is clearly committed to their religious principles and objectives."

    And how does a business SHOW its commitment to these "religious principles"? And what are they? What are religious objectives? And how are these objectives restricted by what an employee does or doesn't do when they are no longer representing the business? How is it infringing on the business' right to religious freedom when an employee asserts her right to bodily autonomy and privacy- something guaranteed by law?

    Are you implying that religious objectives should be political objectives? Which religion gets to decide?

    If staying closed on Sunday shows a commitment to religious principles, how many principles does the business have to show in order to assert its freedom of religion?

    I'm just not buying that Hobby Lobby IS in any way violating their religious principles when they partially pay for an employees healthcare… by their logic no vascetomies should be paid for either.
  18. Monteee
    Report Abuse
    Monteee - January 26, 2014 5:26 am
    If employers are awarded total religious freedom, then any employer could insist that their employees use prayer to heal their illnesses. Those employers may try to carry no health insurance plans at all, as they wouldn't be necessary. They may even try to refuse service to customers based on whether they use birth control, have had an abortion, are homosexual, etc.

    Typical religious tyranny......
  19. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - January 26, 2014 1:52 am
    Haynes: "Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are private companies owned by deeply religious families — evangelical and Mennonite respectively — who believe that life begins at conception."

    If life begins when the sperm meets the egg, it begins when any human cell is formed, because almost any live human cell can be made into a living human being through modern cloning methods. So when the ignoramus owners of Hobby Lobby wash their hands after going to the bathroom, by their own religious beliefs, they are flushing millions of human souls down the drain: every hand washing flushes millions of live 'clonable' cells into oblivion. By their own religious beliefs, the owners of Hobby Lobby are mass murderers (aka hand washers).

    No, Mr. Haynes, what exists when the sperm meets the egg is NOT yet a live human being. Employee medical care should be based on medical science, not on the peculiar religious beliefs of some senile eighty-year-old boss.
  20. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - January 26, 2014 1:24 am
    Haynes: "On grounds of religious conscience, they cannot offer employees insurance plans that cover certain types of birth control (such as the “morning after” pill)"

    You're opening a Pandora's Box here, Mr. Haynes. Suppose instead:

    On grounds of religious conscience, they cannot offer employees insurance plans that cover certain types of cancer treatments.

    On grounds of religious conscience, they cannot offer employees insurance plans that cover certain types of diabetic treatments that involve pork products. (Muslim Arabs own a good chunk of the U.S economy behind the scenes.)

    On grounds of religious conscience, they cannot offer employees insurance plans that cover certain types of blood transfusions. (Certain Christian sects don't dig blood transfusions.)

    Would you, as an employee, want your employer's private and peculiar religious beliefs to determine what health care you are allowed to receive? Where's the boundary line between your personal space and your boss?
Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick

Activate subscription button gif

Search local business directory

Hint: Enter a keyword that you are looking for like tires, pizza or doctors or browse the full business directory.

Follow The La Crosse Tribune


Latest Local Offers

Today's Question


Do you have a summer vacation planned?

View Results

Featured Businesses



Sign Up for Our Email Lists

Breaking News, News Update and Sports Update Headlines. Delivered at 11a.m. daily.

Sign up for Events, Contests and Promotions

Business report, local Business news. Delivered once per month.

New employment opportunities in the region.

Local homes for sale.

Cars, Trucks, Vans, SUVs, Motorcycles, ATVs, Boats, RV's & more