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Mitch Edelman: Corporations must follow the laws

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard the case of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius. The issue at stake was whether a for-profit corporation has the right to deny its employees insured coverage for contraceptives to which they are entitled by federal law, strictly on religion-based objections of the corporation's owners.

On that very day, the Carroll County Times published an opinion column by megachurch pastor Rick Warren, in which he claims that the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby, can place their religious beliefs above the law and the interests of the thousands of employees who work for that company. No matter how well-intended the pastor is, and no matter how sincerely the Greens follow the precepts of their religion, he and they are in error.

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Warren claims that the Greens are good people who do many good works. I'm sure they're good bosses and good corporate citizens. By all accounts, Hobby Lobby provides generous employee benefits, including health insurance. That isn't the issue. The issue is a matter of law, which is clear on what their company is obligated to do, and that is to provide ACA-compliant insurance to their employees or to pay a fine.

The Greens argue that because they believe that using certain contraceptive methods is abortion, they should be exempt from paying for that part of said insurance and to provide non-compliant insurance.

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A while ago, an Amish businessman tried to exempt himself on religious grounds from paying Social Security taxes. A 1982 Supreme Court ruling, United States vs. Lee, held that the religious exemption from this tax applied only to self-employed individuals. The decision specifically declared that employers had to cover employees. The ruling went further, saying that not all burdens placed on religions are unconstitutional. The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding government interest. In this case, the overriding interest is the financial stability of the country's medical system and the health of Americans.

The Court went on to say, "when followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes that are binding on others in that activity." The issue on which Hobby Lobby is appealing was settled more than 30 years ago, and applying the Lee decision to this case should have resulted in its dismissal.

The Greens' appeal is also based on the idea that their company has First Amendment rights of freedom of religious expression. When I see a for-profit corporation in church, I'll believe it has religious rights. Because the owners of a for-profit, not church-affiliated business have certain religious preferences, that business just cannot impose its owners' beliefs on its employees.

The First Amendment essentially says that you can't coerce a person to worship in a particular way. The Greens don't insist that their employees all embrace the same corporate religion, but the action the Greens want to take penalizes the employees whose moral convictions don't coincide with theirs.

The suit also depends on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Originally, that act was passed to allow Native Americans to use peyote in their religious rites and to protect their sacred lands from being intruded on by government projects. That law requires the "least restrictive" way to implement government interests, and that government actions not encumber free exercise of religion. Since no one at all is forcing the Greens to undergo an abortion, it is very difficult to see where providing compliant insurance to their employees intrudes on their religious practices.

Hobby Lobby has a long record of providing its employees with health-care coverage, so it's hard to see where complying with the ACA would financially encumber them.

This case deals with several highly emotionally-charged issues, but the question facing the Supreme Court is whether it bases its ruling on the law or on one religion's restrictive beliefs.

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