Corporations at Prayer
Are corporations not only people with free speech, but citizens with conscience protections? The USCCB makes its argument.
In the USCCB Administrative Committee’s March 12 statement (referred to in Grant Gallicho’s post), the bishops assert there are three classes of citizen relative to religious freedom. The first class consists of those people and institutions that Health and Human Services (HHS) recognizes as “religious employers” and are therefore exempt from the contraception mandate. The second class consists of people and groups whom the bishops recognize as religious employers (Catholic hospitals, schools, charities, etc.), but Health and Human Services does not. These groups may not be exempt from the mandate, and it is this second class that has been the main point of debate. But in their statement, the bishops also introduce an argument for the “conscience protection” of what they call a “third class” of “citizen”:
The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values. They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing “services” contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption.
This third class is new and very interesting. The first and third categories here (employers and insurance companies) suggest that corporations can claim a religious exemption simply if their management is made up of Catholics. While these Catholics are individuals, they would be enforcing their beliefs through a corporation as the corporation. This seems to be a variation of the idea that corporations themselves are legal persons; in this case, persons with both a religious conscience and the right of free speech. An employer would have the right to claim a Catholic character for his corporation and on that basis require his workers to conform.
This goes beyond the idea of simple individuals opting-out of laws on the basis of their religious convictions. Corporations, with rules and management, are also enforcement apparatuses to their workers.
It seems to me that the corporate actor contradicts individuals who are seen as having their religious rights violated by having to pay insurance premiums to a health plan that conforms to the mandate. If corporations were allowed to claim the “conscience protections” of a citizen, could their workers still object to those corporate policies on a religious basis themselves? This is the heart of the matter. Either corporations would be allowed to define conscience protections policies regarding health mandates, which would cancel their worker’s rights to choose (unless they chose to conform), or workers could define their conscience protections and claim a right to choose which would cancel their company’s right to set labor policy. It would have to be one or the other.
This is why the HHS mandate regarding corporations is currently fair. If corporations with any Catholic (or other religious) executives could claim these kinds of religious exemption as part of their freedom of religion, then any corporation could claim various kinds of exemptions on the same basis. There is a cartoon circulating that notes that a corporation with a Jehovah’s Witness executive could refuse to fund blood transfusions; a corporation with a Scientologist CEO could refuse to fund psychiatry benefits; and a corporation with a Christian Scientist on the board could refuse to fund just about everything. The “third class” either allows religion to use the corporation as an “individual” to enforce a religious idea upon its workers or it allows corporations to “opt out” of laws regarding its workers. Neither one of these is a reasonable alternative in a secular society.