In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court has ruled that “closely-held,” or privately owned corporations, can plead the First in order to opt out of paying for contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act’s so-called birth control mandate. Hinting at a potential ruling favoring the Obama Administration’s solution to balance the First Amendment rights of religious organizations and the mandate, the Court’s majority argued the government has far more balanced recourses available to them for providing birth control coverage.
Interpreting this ruling in an apolitical manner and looking beyond the most direct economic consequences, which creates an incentive for employers to abandon contraceptive coverage, the greatest impact of this ruling stems from the Supreme Court reaffirming the notion that corporations are people. Although the Hobby Lobby case is a narrow ruling, which focuses solely on privately owned corporations and the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act, it creates a precedent for businesses to claim other medical procedures violate their supposed First Amendment rights, e.g. blood transfusions.
Despite what Justice Samuel Alito asserts in his writing of the majority opinion, the logic rationalizing the need to create an exemption for privately owned companies must to be extended to other religious claims made by business owners. After all, the judicial system cannot favor one faith and discriminate against another. For conservative leaning individuals, this ruling may be seen as beneficial, i.e. the extension of this logic means privately owned businesses cannot be forced, for example, to cater gay weddings, but it also means select businesses can assert their presumed religious rights as leverage over local and state governments as well as other businesses and actual religious groups.
Consequently, the Supreme Court has also erred by drawing an arbitrary line between closely-held corporations and all other businesses; perhaps, this includes local governments as well. As such, the Court will eventually have to correct this oversight by either overriding its current ruling or expanding religious rights to all corporations and businesses. Meanwhile, Justice Alito’s writings also reveal another contradiction: the Court seems to be in the process of rewarding all corporations with speech rights and some with religious rights. In other words, it is applying the First Amendment as it is sees fit.
On the other hand, Alito’s basis for his argument, i.e. the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, suggests the Court would be open to legislation differentiating corporations and actual people. That said, corporations do need their own bill of rights to help resolve conflicts of interests when the freedoms of individuals conflict with business interests, especially when it comes to privately-held businesses that directly reflect the interests of their owners.
Furthermore, when it comes to operating as a business, the Commerce Clause, which supersedes the First Amendment, comes into play. Our government’s authority to regulate business, which is not absolute, without regard to the individual rights of business owners, was already determined by America’s Founding Fathers. Although there is a need to protect the decision making-ability of business owners, the Supreme Court’s decision on Hobby Lobby is a rationale for the Court’s mistaken assertion that businesses are people and not a valid interpretation of the US Constitution.
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