Do Corporations Have a Right to Religious Freedom?

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The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that will determine whether for-profit corporations must provide insurance coverage for contraception. It's required under the Affordable Care Act, but some business owners say the mandate conflicts with their religious principles. 

The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, will now make their case to the nation's final arbiter as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. goes before the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby could be subject to fines of up to $1.3 million for not providing comprehensive coverage under the ACA. But does Hobby Lobby—a corporation—have the same religious freedoms as the company owners?

Many say the Supreme Court will approach this case under the precedent of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This is a complex case with far reaching implications for religious freedom, corporate personhood, and civil rights.

To help us break it all down is Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Also weighing in on the political consequences is Takeaway Washington Correspondent, Todd Zwillich

"This is a difficult case, in part because the companies at issue here are incorporated—they're corporations—and there's no mention of religion in their articles of incorporation," says Barringer Gordon. "But Hobby Lobby is closed on Sundays, which indicates some desire to respect what they consider the Sabbath. So there are elements of religious behavior here, and also elements of just plain secular profit seeking."

Hobby Lobby claims that providing contraception is at odds with their religious values, so the company is evoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 instead of making a First Amendment religious freedom argument. The 1993 Act declared that the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it had a "compelling" reason to do so—which sets a high standard for the federal government in requiring a change in any sort of behavior.

Barringer Gordon says that the Act was passed in response to an opinion from the Supreme Court written by Justice Antonin Scalia. The opinion said that a neutral and generally applicable law can be applied against religious persons, unless there is hostility against a particular religion or group of actors. 

"Congress was upset by that and passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was found unconstitutional as applied by the states," says the professor. "If we were talking about New York state here, for example, the company would probably not have a case. On the other hand, it still applies against the federal government, which is of course the source of the Affordable Care Act."

In one sense, Barringer Gordon says that the Supreme Court is being asked to determine if corporations can have a religion. 

"If they want to reach that, I think they certainly could," she says. "There's nothing that has prepared us for this, honestly. There's no clear precedent, other than the fact that four years ago in the Citizens United Case the same Supreme Court found that individual corporations did have First Amendment speech rights. It's the same amendment, only this time the religion clauses."

Barringer Gordon says that Hobby Lobby has not yet made clear which birth control they object to, meaning that in some sense, this case is being presented to the Supreme Court before it has been fully developed. 

"This is not a new fight—the fight over women's reproduction is a very old fight in this country, and this is replaying it in yet one more venue," she adds.

Todd Zwillich is on the ground in front of the Supreme Court. Listen to the full interview to hear how demonstrators are responding.