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Editorial: Corporations get religion

First political speech rights and now religious viewpoints — what’s next for this edition of the U.S. Supreme Court to bestow on corporations?

We shudder to think.

The decision in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius is being touted in some quarters as a victory for religious freedom. The 5-4 majority ruled corporate leadership could refuse to pay for employees’ contraception because of their religious beliefs and therefore can excuse themselves from what the Affordable Care Act calls for in health care coverage.

Using the congressionally approved Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the requirement that these health care plans cover all contraception, “clearly imposes a substantial burden” on the owner’s beliefs in these privately held corporations, since the owners of these companies each hold religious beliefs that life begins at conception and objected to providing particular contraceptives — intrauterine devices (IUDs) and the “morning after” pill.

We could be asking what business is it of corporations knowing what kind of contraceptive their employees may use? And clearly this ruling puts the interests of a corporation above the individuals who are its employees, in this particular case women.

We agree with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in her stinging dissent, said the ruling opens wide the door for “... commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships (opting) out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Making this more unpalatable for Ginsburg was that “Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA. The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities. As Chief Justice Marshall observed nearly two centuries ago, a corporation is ‘an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.’”

Alito, noting Ginsburg’s dissent, says the decision carries neither the impetus for privately held corporations to expand their objections beyond contraceptions, vaccinations, for example, nor for publicly traded companies to try to get in on the action. This, of course, ignores the real world consequences seen via the court’s earlier corporation ruling in Citizens United, which allowed a greater flow of corporate money in public campaigns.

The majority opinion here erred in placing corporations above people. Congress needs to find a way to fix this.

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