Hobby Lobby's Argument Should Alarm People of Faith

FILE - This May 22, 2013 file photo shows customer at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver. The Supreme Court has agreed to referee
FILE - This May 22, 2013 file photo shows customer at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver. The Supreme Court has agreed to referee another dispute over President Barack Obama's health care law, whether businesses can use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover birth control for employees. The justices said Tuesday they will take up an issue that has divided the lower courts in the face of roughly 40 lawsuits from for-profit companies asking to be spared from having to cover some or all forms of contraception. The court will consider two cases. One involves Hobby Lobby Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees. Hobby Lobby won in the lower courts. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

Co-authored by Jill C. Morrison

Tomorrow, lawyers representing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties will tell the U.S. Supreme Court that the contraceptive-care mandate included in the Affordable Care Act violates their clients' religious liberty. Their argument should alarm people of faith because it cheapens the right it purports to defend, and because poor women and their families will pay the price if the corporations prevail.

Americans treasure the First Amendment because it protects our right to pray, study sacred texts and shape our lives by moral principles that we believe express the will of a divine being. We know that contemplating, questioning, embracing and practicing a religious faith is a profoundly personal experience shaped by intense reflection and often not a little anguish. It is peculiar, even absurd, to suppose that the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to ensure that inanimate entities created for the economic advantage of their owners be guaranteed this same right to search for truth and meaning.

The plaintiffs in this case may say that they are fighting for religious freedom, but really they are fighting to avail themselves of all the legal and economic benefits that accrue to corporations while simultaneously availing themselves of the protections granted to individual citizens by the First Amendment. Wrapping this attempt to create a privileged legal category for corporate entities in the cloak of religious freedom demeans that freedom and those who cherish it.

Because true religious conviction is impossible to judge, a decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties would be rife with the potential for abuse. What court is wise enough to determine whether a corporation claiming to operate according to religious scruples is resisting a law for economic or ideological reasons? What conviction, no matter how baseless, cannot be wrapped in the protective cloak of faith?

An employer granted the rights that the plaintiffs in this case seek could play the determinative role in the most important decisions that individuals make about their health and well-being. Poor people would suffer most in a society in which employers exercise more influence than doctors over health-care decisions, and few would suffer as much as poor women, who would be economically unable to exercise their right to politically contested health services such as contraception, abortion, and infertility treatment.

The attempt to exclude contraceptive care from the Affordable Care Act is another step in asserting that entities -- not even individuals but entities -- have rights that trump those of women and their families. Women of means can often afford to override incursions on their liberty by paying out of pocket to exercise their right to plan their families. But without the kind of health coverage provided by the ACA, many poor women cannot do so. If the high court rules that corporations have the right to restrict the health coverage they offer to employees on religious grounds, then these women will be de facto denied a right that the courts have said they hold, and that more affluent women exercise every day.

Extending the religious exemption to corporations would make a mockery of our cherished First Amendment rights. It would also, to our shame, mark another ruinous chapter in the long and dishonorable campaign to deprive poor and working-class women of control over their own most intimate and important decisions.

Jill C. Morrison is the vice chair of the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. These comments are her own and do not reflect the views of the university.

The Rev. Harry F. Knox is the president and chief executive officer of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.