Pursuing a profit does not mean giving up your other values, not even if you do it by means of a corporation. That’s the most important meaning of today’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
And it is an important point. Business is part of life. Indeed, using your mind to produce the values that sustain you is of the essence of a human life.
In the Hobby Lobby case, three businesses owned by Christian families objected to Obamacare’s requirement that they pay for employee health plans that include (what they regard as) forms of contraception that can cause abortions. The business owners believe—wrongly—that abortion is immoral.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal government may not “substantially burden” a person’s ability to practice his religion unless it’s the “least restrictive” way to serve a “compelling” government purpose. That religious practice includes following religion-based moral strictures, such as the one these Christians believe forbids them to pay for abortions. (The RFRA does not protect those of us who get our moral convictions from reason and reality , but that’s Congress’s fault, and it wasn’t at issue in today’s case.)
The contraception mandate did not literally and directly apply to the individual Christians who own Hobby Lobby and the other businesses involved: it applied to the businesses, which are corporations. So one of the questions the Court had to address today was whether the RFRA applies to corporations.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it did not. Corporations, she said, quoting Justice Stevens’s opinion in Citizens United, “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”
The thing is, however, the people who own and run them do. And every act of a corporation is ultimately an act of human beings.
Justice Samuel Alito recognized that—and his was the majority opinion. “A corporation,” he wrote for the Court, “is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends... When rights... are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”
The moral principle that individual rights apply in the business context is much broader than the contraceptive mandate. And it’s broader than the RFRA, though that law is all the Court was considering today. It covers the right to free speech and the right to property. It covers the right to make your products by your own standards and organize your business your way . It is, most simply, the right to live a productive human life.
Organizing your business as a corporation does not mean giving up the right to live your life.