Skip to main content

Religious liberty is for people, not corporations

By Elizabeth B. Wydra
updated 7:03 PM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elizabeth Wydra: Supreme Court to review contraception challenge to Obamacare
  • Owners of corporations say providing that coverage violates religious freedom, she says
  • She says business owner can't shift between individual, corporate status for advantage
  • Wydra: If justices follow more than 200 years of law, they'll hand victory to Obamacare

Editor's note: Elizabeth B. Wydra is chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, a public-interest law firm, think tank and action center. She regularly participates in Supreme Court litigation. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethWydra.

(CNN) -- Once again, Obamacare has made its way back before the Supreme Court.

The high court decided Tuesday to review two challenges by for-profit corporations and their religious owners over comprehensive contraception coverage required by the Affordable Care Act. And if the justices follow more than 200 years of constitutional law and history on what it means to enjoy the free exercise of religion in America, the court should yet again hand a victory to the act.

It had little choice but to agree to hear the cases this term.

Using unprecedented legal reasoning, three federal circuit courts of appeals have ruled that secular, for-profit business corporations and/or the individuals who own them have a valid claim that the mandate to provide no-cost, FDA-approved contraception in their employer-sponsored health plan violates their asserted right to the free exercise of religion.

Two other federal circuit courts of appeals have rejected these claims; the Supreme Court frequently steps in to resolve such disagreements among the federal courts of appeals.

Unless the Supreme Court reverses these radical decisions, the consequences could reach far beyond the Affordable Care Act, making this particular roadblock for Obamacare more problematic in the long term than the well-publicized problems associated with the health exchange website's rollout.

Elizabeth B. Wydra
Elizabeth B. Wydra

By accepting the religious free-exercise claims, these three federal courts have turned first principles of religious freedom, as well as fundamental tenets of corporate law, on their head.

From the nation's founding until today, the Constitution's protection of religious liberty has been seen as a personal right, inextricably linked to the human capacity to express devotion to a God and act on the basis of reason and conscience.

Business corporations, quite properly, have never shared in this fundamental constitutional tradition for the obvious reason that a business corporation lacks the basic human capacities -- reason, dignity and conscience -- at the core of the right to free exercise of religion. Obviously not "persons" in the usual sense of the word, these corporations are also not religious organizations, which have historically received some constitutional protection and are, in fact, given exemptions from the contraception mandate.

These businesses do not hire employees on the basis of their religion and their employees are not required to share the religious beliefs personally held by the corporation's owners. In all of American history, secular, for-profit corporations have never been understood to "exercise" religion -- have you ever seen Exxon Mobil in the pew next to you at church? -- and have never been protected by the right to free exercise.

Supreme Court to hear birth control case

To be sure, the devout individual business owners behind the corporations in these challenges have their own personal rights to exercise their religion, but those rights have nothing to do with Obamacare's contraception coverage requirement. Why? Because federal law does not require the individuals who own the company to personally provide health care coverage or to satisfy any other legal obligation of the corporation. The law places requirements only on the corporate entity.

To conflate the corporations in these cases with their owners violates basic principles of corporate law.

When business owners create a corporation as the means of carrying out their business, they create a distinct legal entity with rights, obligations, privileges and liabilities that are different from the individuals who set up the corporation. This generally works to the benefit of the individual owners, which is why people choose to incorporate in the first place. And it means that certain rights specific to individuals do not carry over to the corporate form.

For example, the Supreme Court has held that an individual acting in his personal capacity has the right to "plead the Fifth" and refuse to turn over documents that could incriminate him, but that same individual acting in his official capacity as a corporate owner has no such right against self-incrimination. Like the right to the free exercise of religion, the right against self-incrimination has always been understood to be a personal right of freedom and conscience that artificial corporate entities simply do not share.

A business owner simply does not have the right to move back and forth freely between individual and corporate status to obtain all the advantages and avoid any of the disadvantages of the respective forms.

Whether you have cheered the misfortunes Obamacare has suffered over the past month or bemoaned them, the distortion of basic principles of corporate law and free exercise jurisprudence by the three federal courts that have endorsed the corporate challenges to the ACA's contraception mandate should be troubling.

The Supreme Court, as always, will have the final say.

If the justices follow more than 200 years of constitutional law and history, not to mention basic principles of corporate law, the court should hand another victory to Obamacare.

I'm sure the administration -- and more importantly, the women and their families who risk losing important health benefits to which they are legally entitled -- would welcome the win.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elizabeth B. Wydra.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT