Reg Henry: Guest Column: Firms have no business in religious case

Reg Henry

I don’t know about you, but when I consider secular, for-profit corporations, my mind becomes bathed in a warm light and turns to thoughts of religion. Yes, the Almighty. That would be the Almighty Dollar in this context.

Ever since the Citizens United case, when corporations were deemed to have the First Amendment rights of actual people for purposes of political campaign financing, it was inevitable that disembodied corporate entities that exist only in law would be recognized for the soulful beings they really are.

Surely I don’t have to remind you that corporations do much good. They buy a great deal of stuff in China so workers in this country do not have to go to the trouble of manufacturing it, which allows more time for devotional studies in the bracing spirit of poverty.

In order to sell this stuff, some corporations are kind enough to open their stores on Thanksgiving so that their clerks are not stuck at home with Uncle Charlie in the grip of turkey-induced lethargy, perhaps even falling into the moral danger of watching the Dallas Cowboys and their voluptuous cheerleaders on TV.

How nice it is in the holiday season to walk through stores and hear the time-honored carols, such as “Deck the Malls with Boughs of Money, Fa-la-la, etc.” Corporations not religious? Why, Virginia, just because bean counters study business and not theology doesn’t mean that they aren’t seeking to have their own executive suites in heaven.

Indeed, it is in respect of one of their most cherished commandments — “Thou Shalt Not Have Any Regulations Before Thee”— that some corporations have challenged the Affordable Care Act and its requirement that insurance plans cover contraception.

One such corporation is Hobby Lobby, a national chain owned by a family whose members seek to run it on Christian principles. To be fair, the company does not object to all contraception, just those forms its owners believe induce abortion.

Hobby Lobby and another firm challenging the health care law, a Mennonite-owned cabinet-maker from Pennsylvania, appear not to be the gross corporate stereotypes mentioned above, which I shamelessly concocted to keep you reading — and you can’t say it hasn’t worked. The plaintiffs can be credited with good and sincere intentions on a principle that is devilishly difficult, if you will pardon the expression.

The problem is that both cases are now before the U.S. Supreme Court (motto: “The Best Legal Minds That Politicians Can Find to Match Their Political Prejudices”). And, given their recklessness in Citizens United, the justices may come up with a rule benefiting not only sympathetic plaintiffs but also the stereotypical big corporations I caricatured above — corporations about as religious as my left foot. (My right foot does sing the occasional vesper.)

If that happens, it’s Katie bar the contraception cabinet door. You may think that’s fine, but what if business owners are empowered to impose their Muslim or Mormon or Episcopalian principles on the people of other faiths who work there?

Perhaps you might see, depending on the sect, mandatory head coverings for women, no coffee or caffeinated soft drinks and, in the case of the Episcopalians, dismissal over use of the wrong fork in the staff cafeteria.

I have nothing against any of these religions, even the Episcopalians with their annoyingly superior table manners, but these examples are mild. What if some boss wants to fire gays or not hire blacks on the basis of a religious objection?

And don’t tell me that people don’t have to work at a particular job if the company rules take away their rights as employees. Those who say that have apparently never looked out the window. Precious few jobs are out there.

So while corporations have their rights, so do people, and people should not be confused with corporations, even though there is a law — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 —that suggests otherwise. Here we must be instructed by the late Charles Dickens: “‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass — a idiot.’”

However the court rules, please don’t tell us that corporations are people. Yikes, maybe they will want to marry one of us next: “Do you take Inc. to be your lawfully wedded husband …?”

Those who set up secular, for-profit corporations for protection under the law should respect the law. And, yes, rendering unto Caesar sometimes means walking a fine line between everybody’s rights.