Tom Clyde: Corporations are religious people, too
The Supreme Court ruled this week that small, closely held corporations do not have to provide birth control as part of their employee health insurance plans, despite the requirement in the Affordable Care Act, if doing so would violate the corporation’s sincerely held religious beliefs. So there. The case was brought by the owners of a craft store chain called "Hobby Lobby." They are apparently devout Catholics, and believe that any form of birth control is a sin, and didn’t like the idea that the federal government was mandating that they provide employee health insurance that included sinning.
Obamacare sets minimum standards on what employer-provided health insurance should cover. It doesn’t require the insurance to pay for abortions, or sex changes, or a whole lot of stuff. But it did, until this week, require that it cover the cost of birth control. In the usual 5-4 split on the highly politicized court, the justices said that violated the corporation’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
The case is remarkable in a number of ways. First off, the idea that a corporation can have any religious beliefs, sincere or not, is kind of a puzzle. A corporation is a legal fiction, not a sentient being. The papers on file in the state office of corporations seem an unlikely place to find even tepid religious belief.
The only insurance service that falls within the newly found religious beliefs of corporations is contraception. Hobby Lobby still has to cover blood transfusions and vaccinations. So apparently the sincere religious beliefs of corporations who happen to be Catholic are protected, but corporations who are Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists are not.
Which raises the question, "how do you baptize a corporation?" And are some corporations Jewish, and if so, are they circumcised, and how do you know what gender a corporation is before calling the mohel? Does this only hold for religious beliefs about sex? What about religious beliefs about other stuff?
My family owns the ranch in a closely held corporation that would qualify for the exception from Obamacare the court found. If we had employees, we could deny coverage for contraception. But what if our corporation has a sincere religious belief that we shouldn’t have to cover if it was God’s will that they got mangled in the hay baler?
All very complicated stuff. I frankly don’t know what the sincerely held religious beliefs of our corporation are. Among the shareholders, individually, there is quite a range. But as for the corporation itself, I really don’t know. I’ve never asked it. I suspect our corporation is kind of a jack-Unitarian, but the topic has just never come up when I’m doing the bookkeeping or chasing the irrigation water around. Would it be rude to ask? What if our corporation turns out to be some crazy strain of Baptist like those nuts in Kansas? Can I call in the missionaries to see if it can be converted to something less radical?
I’m not even sure the missionaries are the right people to talk to when trying to convert a corporation, or perform an exorcism on one. Maybe it should be done through the accountants. Our accountant is pretty good, but he’s not the first guy who comes to mind when trying to cast the demons out of our corporation. He might be able to find a way to accelerate the depreciation on the demons, but I doubt he is up to exorcising them.
This all kind of points to the stupidity of continuing the linkage between health insurance, and the most private decisions about our own health, and employment. Is their employees’ family planning really any of Hobby Lobby’s business? Does Hobby Lobby really want to know that much about their employees’ off hours? Should anybody really have to negotiate their methods of birth control while working out the details of a new job? Two weeks vacation, the pill, but no IUD.
It sort of makes the case for severing employment from health insurance.
Speaking of severing employment, County Manager Bob Jasper has announced he is retiring. Bob was the first county manager here. He walked into a courthouse full of people who were at best skeptical about the new structure, and there was a whole lot of open opposition from people who wanted it to fail. He had elected officials in some key areas who were phoning it in, and not very often. There was every reason to assume it was going to fail. Instead, in a firm but patient way, Bob made it work. County government in a county as diverse and weird as Summit County isn’t ever going to be perfect, but Bob has done a great deal to make it work better. Thanks, and good luck in retirement.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.