America is no stranger to controversy over the role of religion in our political and economic systems.
Our country was founded by puritanical separatists, fleeing England to carve out a community where they could burn witches and wear uncomfortable clothing in peace. Our devotion to personal freedoms inspired millions of immigrants to come here, creating a diverse, wonderful tapestry of multiculturalism—but our political heart of conservative morals still beats.
On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that neo-puritanicals loved. The 5-4 ruling allows family-owned corporations to claim a religious exemption from a provision of the Affordable Care Act that mandates insurance coverage for contraception.
I cannot even imagine how bizarre this must seem to women around the world. Corporations can withhold basic health coverage because they have religious objection? How can a corporation have a belief or religion? How can a corporation have rights like a person?
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the ruling "jeopardizes the health of women employed by these companies" and argued that "the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits."
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the 5-4 ruling, assured the country that the decision was limited in scope, and would not be used by corporations to deny other medical treatment they deem against their "faith" such as blood transfusions. But a series of orders released by the court shortly after the ruling contradicted any narrow interpretation of the ruling. The three women on the court were unanimous in their displeasure, and the decision does seem to have gender bias as the plaintiff Hobby Lobby offers coverage for Viagra and vasectomies for male employees.
More worrisome to me is the overreach in this growing concept of corporate personhood. When the founding fathers wrote the words "We the People" I'm pretty sure they weren't including McDonalds or General Electric. The government exists, in part, to protect average citizens from imbalance of the rich and powerful. This concept was fundamentally threatened five years ago when the Supreme Court struck down limits on corporate campaign spending and expanded free speech rights to businesses. The rights "Corporate persons" enjoy trump the rights of employees to fair and equal treatment.
According to the Associated Press, critics of the decision say the latest court ruling could encourage corporations to try to claim greater rights in other areas as well — arguing against cruel and unusual punishment if they think a fine is too big, for example, or even seeking a corporate right to bear arms. The courts already have extended to corporations Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches but have declined to provide them Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination.
Don't feel sorry for corporations. They have plenty of rights. The very notion of a corporation was created to provide special treatment in taxes and legal liabilities that we do not enjoy as citizens. Now, the court says corporations should have the extra benefits that come with individual citizenship.
The court seems bent on supporting crony capitalism, and corporations seem to have the "right" to subject their employees to anything. And just like most religious conservatives, the contradictions in their actions are too numerous to count. Hobby Lobby refuses to cover birth control, but also denies its employees paid maternity leave. It classifies birth control as abortion without any scientific basis, and is biased against women.
As one of my friends so eloquently put it:
"This ruling will only provide a slippery slope for corporations to continue to look at ways to cut costs at the expense of their worker. I don't understand the logic of being held to the same beliefs as your boss in relationship to your private healthcare or lifestyle decisions. I doubt that everyone agrees or even knows the head of their company's religious and/or personal beliefs. This ruling will now open the door for corporations to file 'religious beliefs' against paying for other healthcare items, do you want to be at the mercy of your employer that does not believe in medical intervention whatsoever or believes that certain illnesses are preventable therefore not their obligation to cover any related expenses? Will these corporations that do not want to pay for contraception provide adequate time off for maternity/paternity leave, a higher wage, and better healthcare to these employees' and their children instead? This isn't just about birth control."
The author is a columnist for Beijing Review, living in New York City