A Much-Needed Victory For Religious Rights

At a time when religious liberties are under attack in the United States and abroad, the eagerly awaited decision released on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court was a very welcome victory for religious rights. In a ruling hailed by religious-rights activists and Jewish organizations, the Supreme Court ruled Monday for the first time that a key federal religious-freedom law also applied to for-profit corporations controlled by families. In a 5–4 decision, the justices ruled that corporations can’t be forced by Obamacare to pay for medical measures that violate the religious beliefs of the owners.

Until now, the Obama administration had exempted religious-oriented, not-for-profit corporations from including this coverage in their health-care plans. Instead, they allowed those groups to tell the government that providing the coverage violates their religious beliefs. At that point, the groups’ insurers or a third-party administrator takes on the responsibility of paying for it.

But when it came to for-profit companies, the administration made no such provisions. It argued — and a lower court agreed — that since the federal law seeks to protect “the exercise of religion,” for-profit companies just don’t fit the bill.

“Business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship … or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors,” is how the third circuit of appeals put it. In other words, because the owners had decided to seek the legal protections afforded by forming a corporation, they lost their religious-rights protections.

Fortunately for religious business owners everywhere, the Supreme Court rejected the notion, rightfully ruling that such companies are created to give Americans more liberties, and not to take away the rights they would otherwise be entitled to. “Corporations, separate and apart from the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all,” the majority opinion rather logically states.

But this should not lead us to underestimate the importance of the court’s decision.

It is telling that in proving its argument, the Court cited the 1961 decision of Braunfeld v. Brown. In that case, five shomer Shabbos merchants who ran small retail businesses in Philadelphia challenged a Pennsylvania law that required stores to be closed on Sunday. Since they closed their shops on Shabbos, they argued that requiring them to also remain shut on Sunday threatened them with financial ruin. The High Court ruled against them at the time, saying that although the law made the practice of their religious beliefs more expensive, it didn’t actually force anyone to violate them.

The contemporary Supreme Court pointed out, it was because of the specific merits of the case that these five Orthodox shopkeepers were denied. But at least they got their day in court.

The present courts declared that if the Obama administration had its way, if these merchants would have chosen to incorporate their businesses — even if, like the plaintiffs in the health-care case, they would be the sole proprietors of their businesses — they would forfeit all their religious rights.

The fact that the court used the example of shomrei Shabbos indicated how relevant this is to our community.

A coalition of Orthodox Jewish organizations had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, authored by noted constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin. That brief cited the 1961 case and stressed the very same points reached by the court in their decision, which underscores how persuasive the brief was, and how important it was to file it.

While this decision is doubtless a boon for religious liberties, it is likely to have only an indirect effect on such cases as the fight to protect bris milah. For while the court showed great sympathy for religious rights, this case was primarily about the legal status of a corporation, and not about the extent of religious liberties.

There is another aspect of the decision that is worthy of comment.

The court noted that some lower-court judges have suggested that the applicable federal law doesn’t protect for-profit corporations because the purpose of such corporations “is simply to make money” — then proceeded to reject that notion out of hand.

“While it is certainly true that a central objective of for-profit corporations is to make money, modern corporate law does  not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so. For-profit corporations, with ownership approval, support a wide variety of charitable causes, and it is not at all uncommon for such corporations to further humanitarian and other altruistic objectives,” the court noted.

“Many examples come readily to mind. So long as its owners agree, a for-profit corporation may take costly pollution control and energy conservation measures that go beyond what the law requires. A for-profit corporation that operates facilities in other countries may exceed the requirements of local law regarding working conditions and benefits. If for-profit corporations may pursue such worthy objectives, there is no apparent reason why they may not further religious objectives as well,” it concluded.

In a land notorious for worshipping the dollar, in a culture that places the ultimate emphasis on earning money, these words of sanity are refreshing to hear.