Corporations have religious beliefs — or, at least some corporations do. That’s one takeaway from the 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court today in the “Hobby Lobby” case.
The victory for the Oklahoma City-based crafts store Hobby Lobby and dozens of other businesses who filed suit means “closely held” companies can deny contraception coverage to their employees. The question in front of the Supreme Court was fairly straightforward: Can Hobby Lobby be forced to offer contraception coverage as part of its health insurance, if that contraception violates its religious beliefs?
Specifically, the company opposed covering certain forms of contraception, such as some intrauterine devices and products like Plan B One-Step, because it believes they amount to abortion.
In writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito went out of his way to focus on certain businesses, says Duke Law professor James Cox.
“The Justice was fairly clear in saying he’s talking about a closely held, family-dominated corporation with no outside owners and no diversity of opinion,” Cox says.
It’s not clear how many businesses meet that definition. Some 9 out of 10 corporations are “closely held.” That includes everything from mom and pop shops to giants like Koch Industries and Cargill, which employ hundreds of thousands.
The bright line the court draws is about religious intent.
George Washington law professor Robert Tuttle says you can imagine how two or three owners (who may be related) share religious views. Publicly traded companies like Apple and IBM and their armies of shareholders are a different animal.
“It’s just really hard to see how they can have a sincere religious objection to anything,” says Tuttle.
While this verdict is aimed at a class of corporation, Boston College’s Kent Greenfield – who filed an amicus brief in the case – expects companies of all shapes and sizes to try to squeeze through this new opening.
“This opinion gives companies the opportunity to ask for a waiver for regulation, and usually regulation costs money, he says. “And if they can avoid those costs by asserting a religious waiver, then they will.”
Greenfield says this decision could give certain companies a competitive advantage on the basis of religion.
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