(Oct. 23 -- By the Editorial Board)
Whose rights to religious liberty matter under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - those of people and church organizations, or those of for-profit corporations?
That issue is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court as lower courts have been divided over whether corporations may deny insurance coverage of birth control to their employees.
This is the next major constitutional hurdle for Obamacare.
The owners of three for-profit corporations - Hobby Lobby with 13,000 full-time workers across the country, Conestoga Wood employing 950 and Autocam with 1,500 employees - claim that they should have the same rights as "persons" and as nonprofit churches. The owners say they have religious objections to having insurance plans providing certain kinds of birth control.
Obamacare emphasizes preventive care to reduce health costs and improve health outcomes, and requires health insurance plans to cover a range of preventive services, including blood pressure checks, flu shots and contraceptives.
As it should be under the First Amendment, church organizations that object to having health plans cover birth control are exempt if their primary purpose is "inculcation of religious values" and they primarily employ and serve people of that religion.
But employers that hire people of other faiths have no constitutional right to impose their beliefs against contraception on their employees. Women who have a different faith from their employer have religious freedom, too - the liberty to pursue their conscience regarding preventive health services.
Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and Autocam hire employees and serve customers of many different faiths. Yet the owners of these companies essentially claim, "Since my faith forbids contraception, I'm not going to offer my employees a health plan that includes contraceptive coverage." In short, they want to force their own religious beliefs on their employees.
A divided 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby that for-profit corporations can be "persons" exercising religion. But the 3rd Circuit and 6th Circuit ruled the opposite, against Conestoga Wood and Autocam, that the First Amendment applies only to an individual's exercise of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court will have to resolve this.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris submitted a brief this week on behalf of California and 10 other states. She points out, first, that Hobby Lobby's insurance plan provided contraceptive coverage until Obamacare came along. Only then did the owners decide to deny that coverage to their employees.
But Harris' main argument is that the religious beliefs of the owners are "distinct from the corporation itself." If for-profit corporations are allowed to claim a religiously motivated "opt out" in this case, then what would stop corporations from claiming religious exemptions in the areas of "public safety, civil rights, social welfare, land use, housing, employment and public health"?
If the Supreme Court allows for-profit corporations to say they have the same First Amendment religious rights as individuals and churches, what is to stop business owners from refusing to provide insurance coverage for blood transfusions or vaccinations?
David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center points out that "no decision of the Supreme Court, not even Citizens United, has ever invested business corporations with the basic rights of human dignity and conscience," the essence of religious liberty.
At stake here is what should be an obvious principle: Should the religious beliefs of business owners trump the rights of their employees? Absolutely not. Business owners should not be able to impose their personal religious beliefs.