My rights are bigger than your rights

or why corporations are now individuals

This past Monday, the US Supreme Court made a decision on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.. Under the Affordable Health Care act (ACA; aka Obamacare), profit making companies must provide health insurance for their employees. They do this through a third party insurer, but the companies pay a proportion of the insurance to the provider while the employees pay a smaller (hopefully!) contribution. The Hobby Lobby didn’t want to pay for insurance for contraception for their employees, saying that it was against their religious beliefs. The court, very surprisingly, voted in favour of The Hobby Lobby – 5 to 4.

What’s even more interesting is that the Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs (along with 71 other US companies to a greater or lesser degree) don’t eliminate some kinds of contraception – such as vasectomies and presumably birth control pills, but it does eliminate 4 types of contraception which they deem ‘abortive contraception’ – necessarily only affecting women.

So what you might easily think is, so what? Why don’t employees just use other forms of birth control? On the surface this (almost) seems reasonable – except for what if other forms of birth control don’t work for you – your rights are impinged. What if the chemically invasive birth control causes an adverse reaction and you need to be fitted with an IUD. Your rights are impinged. Your rights are impinged anyway, even if none of these things happen. This decision would allow an employer (who don’t always employ people with the same beliefs – and shouldn’t because that is discriminatory) to deny a portion of insurance-covered health to you. Your rights are impinged – dictated by someone else’s beliefs.

This decision is frightening. It is an opt out clause to avoid laws, based on beliefs – in this case they are religious but they could be say a cultural belief. It’s a slippery slope. Who’s next? Now that precedent is set can, to quote dissenting justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, corporations that are devoutly Muslim decide not to pay for pork-based pharmaceuticals? Bye-bye coverage for gelatin pills. Can New-Age and Snake Handler owned companies refuse to pay for vaccinations? Where does it stop? Let the legal games begin.

If you read the majority decision, the argument seems to be focused around whether or not a corporation is an individual. Well now, according to Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Kennedy, apparently it is! So as an individual citizen, Hobby Lobby may not be able to buy me a beer or do me a favor on my daughter’s wedding day but it can refuse to pay for something other people are required to pay for, because … beliefs! By this logic I should be able to stop paying the portion of my taxes that goes to something I don’t like – say the military. I don’t mind the military actually but I am tired of too many wars, so I’ll pay for soldier’s salaries and some material but you know not all those extra tanks – that’s against my beliefs. Better yet, as a friend of mine posted on Facebook today: It’s against my beliefs to pay back my student loans, the Bible says that all debt should be forgiven after seven years, I’m not paying!

The US was founded on a philosophy where someone’s beliefs should not adversely affect another person’s well-being. At least on paper, US citizens enjoy the right to religious freedom – unimpeded by the law of the land as long as you respect other folks freedoms and rights. You can believe whatever you want to believe but you have to follow the law of the land which applies to everyone. This is what a goodly portion of the Constitution is about. I am really not this naive. Of course people infringe on the rights of others all the time. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. Sometimes claming a moral ‘I’m better than you are!’ high ground, sometimes not. The highest court in the land should be responsible for upholding these unalienable rights. The US Supreme Court has failed to do this in this recent decision.

BUT there is hope. This is not the end. The Supreme Court (or rather the 5 justices who voted FOR; the 4 that voted against were far more eloquent on why this was a bad thing than I am) has made an abundant number of dreadful decisions over the years that have been subsequently over turned by other rulings from the Supreme Court. Take the Dred Scott decision (1857):

Dred Scott was a slave who sought his freedom through the American legal system. The 1857 decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case denied his plea, determining that no Negro, the term then used to describe anyone with African blood, was or could ever be a citizen.

Thankfully and with a lot of hard work, time, oh and a war, that’s been overturned. The good thing about the US constitions and its legal system is nothing is ever written in stone. Hopefully this time we won’t need a war.

This is not about religion per se. This is about someone using their beliefs to opt out of the law in a country that has a formal mandate not to do this. It shouldn’t matter legally in the US whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist – you name it we all have to abide by the same legal doctrine – or go to jail. Even though the Hobby Lobby decision is just a chip in the iceberg for this issue, it’s still a chip and as Justice Ginsberg said “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

The full court opinion and dissenting opinion can be found (as a .pdf) here.

Update after posting: Apparently now – according to an article in The Nation:

On Tuesday, the Court indicated that its ruling applies to for-profit employers who object to all twenty forms of birth control included in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, not just the four methods at issue in the two cases decided on Monday

Scary, scary times indeed!

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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4 Responses to My rights are bigger than your rights

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Unfortunately, Sylvia, there is a long history of corporations being treated legally as persons in the USA. See:

    and particularly the paragraph about the 1886 Supreme Court case.

    Short of an amendment to the US constitution to restore the pre-1886 position (which I regard as slighly less probable than seeing a flying pig), there is no prospect of change.

    • yes there is a long history of this – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed – there was also about 100 years of slavery in the US – and that was (eventually) changed

  2. cromercrox says:

    Corporations are regarded as individuals in the UK, too. If you have ever set up a limited company (which I have), you’ll find that it’s regarded as an individual for tax purposes, and with respect to liability – that is, if the corporation is sued for any reason, it is the assets of the company that are charged, not the personal assets of the directors or employees. That’s what the ‘limited’ means – it stands for ‘limited liability’. It certainly makes a great deal of sense and makes such things as accountancy and taxation a lot simpler than they would be otherwise. But whether limited companies in Britain can have moral or religious views – well, that sounds a little bizarre.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    This is the unfortunate culmination of a battle that’s being waged for a number of years against the Obama healthcare system. From the very outset there were churches and religious institutions (or those affiliated with religious institutions) that raised the flag saying “We will not pay for family planning, contraception or anything that goes against our beliefs.” So in part, it’s the “religious beliefs” and in part it’s just another attempt to take a crack at the universal healthcare law. But as you aptly summed up, considering this is a country that takes pride in separation of religion and state (or used to), it’s a scary ruling and a very slippery slope.

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