Walking into Hobby Lobby, it is easy to see the religious leanings of the establishment. The store is closed on Sundays to “allow employees time for family and worship” and their stock of Christian crafts and home decorations is extensive. Recently, this viewpoint had an impact in court.
On June 30th, the Supreme Court ruled on a case concerning Hobby Lobby’s policy of denying health insurance that covered contraceptives. The Court upheld that in a company where less than five individuals hold majority stock (a “closely held” corporation), companies have the right to act upon the religious convictions of those shareholders. According to Inc.com, that comprises 90% of American businesses. That means that a staggering 90% of businesses now have the freedom to deny female employees contraception (or any other service) if they honestly hold religious beliefs against it.
Mother Jones breaks down the effect of this ruling into three outcomes: access to contraceptives, access to other health benefits under Obamacare, and workers rights. If companies can do anything except withhold taxes because of religious reasons, the door is opened for denying employment to homosexuals, paying women less, or not funding essential medical processes such as vaccination, Mother Jones reports. Since contraception is a contentious topic to begin with, this case has attracted lots of media attention on what this effect on women now. However, there is little focus forward: how will this ruling affect American workers in 5, 10, 15 years?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Cornell alum and sister of Alpha Epsilon Phi, sums up the implications in her 35-page dissent. She summarizes several previous cases where religious convictions did not precede laws, a standard which contradicts the results of the Hobby Lobby case. Ginsberg points out that this is the first time the Supreme Court has allowed a for-profit company to be given autonomy usually used to protect non-profit and community groups. Furthermore, she analyzes that even if one were to consider the corporation to hold the same religious rights of an individual, the law dictates that providing contraception should “substantially” go against said religious beliefs, and it is unclear in the current case if the “substantial” requirement has been met.
Her point that there is a difference between a “community of believers” and a corporation raises the question: can a company’s owners follow their beliefs at the expense of their employees? According to Monday's decision, yes. The laws surrounding incorporating, or creating a corporation, are concerned with creating an entity separate from its shareholders. It doesn’t seem obvious that shareholders ought to retain certain individual rights when operating a company. The Supreme Court has redrawn the line of what rights shareholders retain. It is important for future employees to note that although a corporation holds the same rights as a person, it does not have the same liability. It is remarkably difficult to bring criminal charges against the shareholders of a corporation for damages done by the company. This double standard seems to have fallen by the wayside in the Hobby Lobby decision.
Justice Bader Ginsburg certainly is justified in her concern with the breadth of this decision. As individuals who will likely be employed in the near future, it is important to be aware of what this ruling may mean. Perhaps it is rather extremist to say that this ruling will allow corporations to discriminate while hiring (as Mother Jones claims, but we should still be aware that this ruling may affect us as employees.