Skip to main content

Religious liberty is for people, not corporations

By Elizabeth B. Wydra
November 27, 2013 -- Updated 0003 GMT (0803 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elizabeth Wydra: Supreme Court to review contraception challenge to Obamacare
  • Owners of corporations say providing that coverage violates religious freedom, she says
  • She says business owner can't shift between individual, corporate status for advantage
  • Wydra: If justices follow more than 200 years of law, they'll hand victory to Obamacare

Editor's note: Elizabeth B. Wydra is chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, a public-interest law firm, think tank and action center. She regularly participates in Supreme Court litigation. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethWydra.

(CNN) -- Once again, Obamacare has made its way back before the Supreme Court.

The high court decided Tuesday to review two challenges by for-profit corporations and their religious owners over comprehensive contraception coverage required by the Affordable Care Act. And if the justices follow more than 200 years of constitutional law and history on what it means to enjoy the free exercise of religion in America, the court should yet again hand a victory to the act.

It had little choice but to agree to hear the cases this term.

Using unprecedented legal reasoning, three federal circuit courts of appeals have ruled that secular, for-profit business corporations and/or the individuals who own them have a valid claim that the mandate to provide no-cost, FDA-approved contraception in their employer-sponsored health plan violates their asserted right to the free exercise of religion.

Two other federal circuit courts of appeals have rejected these claims; the Supreme Court frequently steps in to resolve such disagreements among the federal courts of appeals.

Unless the Supreme Court reverses these radical decisions, the consequences could reach far beyond the Affordable Care Act, making this particular roadblock for Obamacare more problematic in the long term than the well-publicized problems associated with the health exchange website's rollout.

Elizabeth B. Wydra
Elizabeth B. Wydra

By accepting the religious free-exercise claims, these three federal courts have turned first principles of religious freedom, as well as fundamental tenets of corporate law, on their head.

From the nation's founding until today, the Constitution's protection of religious liberty has been seen as a personal right, inextricably linked to the human capacity to express devotion to a God and act on the basis of reason and conscience.

Business corporations, quite properly, have never shared in this fundamental constitutional tradition for the obvious reason that a business corporation lacks the basic human capacities -- reason, dignity and conscience -- at the core of the right to free exercise of religion. Obviously not "persons" in the usual sense of the word, these corporations are also not religious organizations, which have historically received some constitutional protection and are, in fact, given exemptions from the contraception mandate.

These businesses do not hire employees on the basis of their religion and their employees are not required to share the religious beliefs personally held by the corporation's owners. In all of American history, secular, for-profit corporations have never been understood to "exercise" religion -- have you ever seen Exxon Mobil in the pew next to you at church? -- and have never been protected by the right to free exercise.

Supreme Court to hear birth control case

To be sure, the devout individual business owners behind the corporations in these challenges have their own personal rights to exercise their religion, but those rights have nothing to do with Obamacare's contraception coverage requirement. Why? Because federal law does not require the individuals who own the company to personally provide health care coverage or to satisfy any other legal obligation of the corporation. The law places requirements only on the corporate entity.

To conflate the corporations in these cases with their owners violates basic principles of corporate law.

When business owners create a corporation as the means of carrying out their business, they create a distinct legal entity with rights, obligations, privileges and liabilities that are different from the individuals who set up the corporation. This generally works to the benefit of the individual owners, which is why people choose to incorporate in the first place. And it means that certain rights specific to individuals do not carry over to the corporate form.

For example, the Supreme Court has held that an individual acting in his personal capacity has the right to "plead the Fifth" and refuse to turn over documents that could incriminate him, but that same individual acting in his official capacity as a corporate owner has no such right against self-incrimination. Like the right to the free exercise of religion, the right against self-incrimination has always been understood to be a personal right of freedom and conscience that artificial corporate entities simply do not share.

A business owner simply does not have the right to move back and forth freely between individual and corporate status to obtain all the advantages and avoid any of the disadvantages of the respective forms.

Whether you have cheered the misfortunes Obamacare has suffered over the past month or bemoaned them, the distortion of basic principles of corporate law and free exercise jurisprudence by the three federal courts that have endorsed the corporate challenges to the ACA's contraception mandate should be troubling.

The Supreme Court, as always, will have the final say.

If the justices follow more than 200 years of constitutional law and history, not to mention basic principles of corporate law, the court should hand another victory to Obamacare.

I'm sure the administration -- and more importantly, the women and their families who risk losing important health benefits to which they are legally entitled -- would welcome the win.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elizabeth B. Wydra.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT