By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director
(as originally published in The Roanoke Times; December 21, 2013)
cgastanagacolorThe United States Supreme Court agreed recently to review two cases in which for-profit corporations challenged federal regulations requiring employers to provide health insurance plans that include coverage for contraception. The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a manufacturer of wood products, claim that the rules violate their religious freedom.
For-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are formed for the express purpose of creating a legal entity that is separate from its individual owners. The debts and legal liabilities of the business are borne by the corporation, rather than any living person. If the business is sued, the corporation must pay any judgment, not the human being who founded it, owns it or runs it. The entire purpose of creating a corporation is to establish a "corporate veil" that shields the people who own it from accountability for the actions of the company, relieving them of personal liability if corporate rather than individual action violates the law or causes harm through negligence or breach of contract.
The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga want to have their cake and eat it, too, however. They want the benefit of the "corporate veil" that shields them from personal liability and the authority to direct the corporation to discriminate based on their personal religious beliefs.
When it comes to religion, they argue that they and the corporation are indistinguishable, both piercing the "corporate veil" and ignoring the reality that a for-profit corporate entity cannot, by definition, worship or pray. These shielded owners say that neutral laws compelling or prohibiting certain corporate actions force them as individuals to violate their personal and individual religious beliefs.
The American Civil Liberties Union takes religious liberty seriously. In Virginia alone, the ACLU has defended the right of a Jehovah's Witness employed by the federal government to refuse to sign a loyalty oath, the right of a street preacher to spread his message on public sidewalks, the right of a minister to use a river in a public park to perform baptisms, the right of jail inmates to receive Christian literature, and the right of public school students to wear rosaries to school and post the Ten Commandments on their lockers. Given this history, our decision to oppose the claims of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga was not made lightly.
It is often said that one person's rights end where another person's rights begin. Whenever one individual's religious exercise threatens to impinge on the rights or liberties of others, a delicate balance is often required. In this case, however, the Affordable Care Act does not pit one individual's rights against another's. It simply requires for-profit corporate employers to provide important health insurance coverage to women. And, it does so without affecting the right of the individual owners behind the "corporate veil" to believe and practice their religion as they please.
If for-profit companies were found to be indistinguishable from the people who own them in order to allow those companies to avoid, on asserted religious grounds, providing comprehensive health care coverage for women, then what's next? Would those companies also be free to assert religious exemptions to other legal requirements, including prohibitions on discrimination based on race or workplace safety laws?
This case is simple. A for-profit corporation is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew, or a member of any other faith group. It is a fictional legal entity that protects its owners from liability. Its acts legally are not the acts of the owners. That one or more of those individual owners may be people of faith doesn't change this basic fact or require those owners to violate any of their beliefs.