Can a corporation have religious scruples?

Employers have brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court claiming a religious conscientious objection to the provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring them to provide health insurance that covers contraception.  What they’re claiming, as I see it, that religious freedom includes the right to refuse to do business with sinners.

The general rule is that there is no right of religious exemption from laws for the benefit of the general public that apply to everyone equally.  Nevertheless, there is a tradition in the United States of bending over backwards to accommodate individuals with sincere religious beliefs, from allowing religious conscientious objection to military service to exempting Seventh Day Adventists from Sunday closing laws.

I think this is a good tradition, as it applies to individuals.  I don’t think, for example, that the right of gay people to marry includes the right to do business with a florist or wedding photographer who thinks homosexuality is sinful.

Corporations are a different matter.  Corporations are not human beings.  They are soulless artificial constructs whose supposed personhood is a legal formality.  How, then, can a corporation have religious scruples?   Why do the managers of a corporation have any more right to impose their private views on their employees than do the managers of a state Department of Motor Vehicles?

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2 Responses to “Can a corporation have religious scruples?”

  1. tiffany267 Says:

    Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    Actually I really like this question Phil is posing. The purpose of corporations, i.e. their raison d’etre is precisely to generate a profit, and for a corporation to associate with a religion (and thereby deliberately turn away customers on the basis of irrational faith-based perspectives) really corrupts that noble purpose. In fact, shareholders should be outraged that their investments are being abused to make childish business decisions that do NOT increase the bottom line. Maybe they should be entitled to hold the company liable for potential losses that may result from absurd discriminatory practices?

    All individuals, and by extension all corporations, have a moral right to do business only with individuals of their own choosing. But I agree with Phil that this right comes with contractual responsibilities, and perhaps the exercise of religion should be off the table for companies since there is no rational connection to profit? A great starting point for the conversation anyway.


  2. danielwalldammit Says:

    The notion that individuals could get some sort of an exception to an otherwise valid law was for a time standard case-law, and that’s how a lot of the accommodations were worked out. The Smith peyote decision gutted that principle.

    I do think it’;s a damned shame to see corporations now claiming religious freedom as a basis for controlling the options of actual individuals. But the problem is also real if we look at businesses under private owners. A boss simply shouldn’t be able to use his religious freedom as a means of controlling his subordinates personal lives.


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