Friday, March 21, 2014

'Corporate Religion': It's Bad For Business, And Of Course For Civil Liberties

Emily Martin and Jennifer Pizer at TPM engage in some serious reflection on what it would mean if corporations were allowed to defy laws based on their purported "corporate freedom of religion": it's not a pretty picture. Consider, they say, what would happen if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, allowing them effectively to overrule the ACA requirement that employer-provided insurance plans must offer women access to contraception at zero co‑pay:

The proponents of the Arizona bill explained in interviews that they introduced it so that businesses could refuse to provide service to gay or lesbian customers. But the bill itself never mentioned sexual orientation; the primary thing it did was change Arizona’s existing religious exemptions law to vest corporations, partnerships, and other for-profit businesses with religious rights. In doing so, however, the bill would have given these for-profit businesses a license to ignore many state and local laws if the businesses claim the laws burden the business’s religious beliefs, unless applying the law in question to the business in that particular circumstance is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest.


In other words, if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood win with this argument, the Supreme Court will have reinterpreted longstanding federal law to adopt at the national level a key goal of Arizona’s bill, empowering corporations across the country to discriminate against their customers and employees in many contexts based on the corporation’s ostensible religion, whether or not that discrimination would otherwise be illegal. As a result, if the Supreme Court decides an arts and crafts chain is capable of religious beliefs and thus can have a religious right to deny its employees insurance coverage for birth control, then airlines might be able to assert a religious right to pay men more than women, bakeries could assert a religious right to deny employees insurance coverage for vaccinations, hotels might be able to assert a religious right to refuse rooms to customers based on race, and restaurants could assert a religious right to refuse to serve gay couples. 

Given the national furor when the Arizona legislature passed such a proposal, it would be troubling indeed if following Governor Brewer’s veto, the Supreme Court rejected decades of settled federal law to provide a corporate right to discriminate in the name of religion. Arizona’s governor did the right thing by recognizing that SB 1062 represented a radical and divisive approach that was wrong for the state, as did legislatures in Mississippi and Kansas when they set aside similar bills. The Supreme Court should not reshape federal law to craft a similarly radical and divisive rule for the nation.
(Note: the bill referred to is a recent Arizona bill to vest corporations with religious freedom; it was vetoed by Governor Brewer.)

At least two other states have abandoned their attempts to pass such a law, in part because, civil liberties aside, it would be really bad for business. And indeed it already has been bad for Hobby Lobby's business: Stella's multimedia artworks (like the one that recently won a place in a juried exhibit, one called "Freedom of Speech" which overlooks our workspace right now) require a variety of craft materials, and she has stated that she will no longer trade with Hobby Lobby until they relinquish their claim to a corporate "freedom of religion" and its application in dodging duly passed laws. One customer gone... how many more will depart in the face of such a draconian change in the meaning of personal freedoms?

AFTERTHOUGHT: some may ask whether I am accusing the CEOs of these corporations of operating in bad faith... claiming corporate freedom of religion as an excuse to discriminate against customers and/or employees in matters that have little if anything to do with religion. Yes, I am... and yes, they are. And if the Supreme Court lets them get away with it, so is the Supreme Court.

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