Corporations and Religion

On Friday, the Philadelphia-based US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise….”

The case centered on a complaint concerning the HHS/Obamacare contraceptives mandate brought by Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp,

a manufacturer of wood cabinets based in East Earl, PA, and its owners…Mennonite Christians [who] say the requirement violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which guards against laws that substantially burden that right.

The majority held that

while there is a history of the courts protecting the rights of for-profit companies to engage in speech, the same can’t be said for religious rights.

“Even if we were to disregard the lack of historical recognition of the right, we simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion[.]”

Judge Kent A Jordan dissented, noting that Supreme Court decisions, in fact, have recognized corporations’ right of free exercise of religion.  Further,

The government takes us down a rabbit hole where religious rights are determined by the tax code, with non-profit corporations able to express religious sentiments while for-profit corporations and their owners are told that business is business and faith is irrelevant.

It is the profitmaking character of the corporation, not the corporate form itself, that the Majority treats as decisively disqualifying Conestoga from seeking the protections of the First Amendment or RFRA.  That argument treats the line between profit-motivated and non-profit entities as much brighter than it actually is, since for-profit corporations pursue non-profit goals on a regular basis.

[I]t said that…any harm to the Hahns’ religious liberty is “too attenuated to be substantial” because it is Conestoga, not they, that must face the Mandate.

Charles Proctor, who was among those representing Conestoga, asked an important question:

How do you parse separate those three sentences in the First Amendment?  They are only separated by a semicolon. In my opinion, you can’t.

The answer is plain: in fact, they aren’t three sentences; they’re one sentence, and the clauses are “not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon[.]”

Moreover, too many on the Third Circuit plainly do not understand the concepts of ownership or property.  Companies are nothing more than agents of their owners.  Religious rights—and free speech rights and any other rights—denied men’s agents are rights denied the agents’ owners by constricting those owners’ capacity to act through their agents.

It’s also clear, on a point not raised in the WSJ Law Blog article, that the contraceptive mandate also violates the Establishment Clause by placing the government’s determination of appropriate religious behavior above the agent company’s—or individual’s.

The full appellate opinion can be seen here.

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