New Haven Register/Digital First Media
It was a sweeping expansion of the power of corporations and the concept of "corporate personhood" that could have wide-ranging implications on the health, safety, well-being and rights of employees. Or a backflips-requiring farce of an attempt by five Catholic men to narrowly side with a specific religious belief to which they are sympathetic.
In a 5-4 decision Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the retail chain Hobby Lobby and similarly "closely held" private companies can refuse to pay for health insurance coverage of contraceptives if it is contrary to the religious beliefs of its owners.
Previous court precedent has established the dangerously flawed idea that a corporation has some of the same kind of constitutional rights as individuals. This has included the "free speech" right to spend a lot of money donating to political campaigns and influencing elections. Now, apparently, a corporation itself can invoke freedom of religion.
But a corporation is a construct deriving its existence from laws designed to limit the personal liability of the individuals who own it. The standards a corporation are held to impact the well-being of its employees. Corporations are involved in all kinds of functions subject to health and safety regulations that protect the public.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: "Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community."
Corporations can't discriminate based on religion in hiring employees. They can't refuse to serve an interracial couple at their store or lunch counter, invoking religious beliefs, or in most of the country now, discriminate because they object to someone's sexual orientation. Hobby Lobby is choosing to cover prostate exams for men, while denying what most of society and elected governments have deemed are basic gynecological services for women.
Ginsberg asks if the ruling extended to Jehovah's Witnesses, who object to blood transfusions; Scientologists, who are opposed to medication combating depression, or Muslims, Jews and Hindus, who might object to medical products derived from pigs, such as any prescription for pills coated with gelatin.
Well, in his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito made it clear: "This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs."
In other words, objections based on the Catholic religion observed by the five men in the Supreme Court's majority in this case are valid, but not the objections of religions they do not follow.
"Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be perceived as favoring one religion over the other," Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, "the very risk the (Constitution's) Establishment Clause was designed to preclude."