(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

SCOTUS may dodge question of "corporate religion" in Hobby Lobby case

A legal middle ground could allow the court to avoid ruling on whether corporations can "have faith"

Katie McDonough
March 19, 2014 6:14PM (UTC)

The Supreme Court next week will finally hear oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood challenges to the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, a case that some have called Citizens United redux for its potential impact on the question of corporate personhood and the alarming concept of corporate religion.

Hobby Lobby, a national retail chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood, a Pennsylvania-based cabinet manufacturer, have sued for an exemption from the contraception mandate, arguing that the provision of the new healthcare law violates the religious liberty of both for-profit corporations.


Basically, Citizens United established that corporations are people; the pair of cases brought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood may determine if corporations are people of faith.

But, according to a legal analysis of the case from Lawrence Hurley at Reuters, the court, if it is sympathetic to the plaintiffs' claims of religious liberty, could also avoid the question of corporate religion entirely. And given the high court's track record on corporate personhood, that could be the best version of a bad outcome.

Justices may dodge the issue with a ruling "that individuals who own closely held companies, rather than the corporations themselves, can argue their religious rights have been violated," Hurley notes. Francis Manion, a lawyer in a similar case litigated by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., called such an outcome "a middle way to duck the legally controversial question" of whether corporations have faith.


More from Reuters:

A ruling from the high court similar to the Gilardi decision in Washington would enable the justices to duck the kind of criticism they faced, mainly from liberals, four years ago when the court was seen to side with the notion of corporate personhood. On a 5-4 vote, the court endorsed broad free-speech rights for corporations in the campaign finance context in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The second question for the court is whether the religious objections have any merit. The Washington, D.C., appeals court ruled for the Gilardis on that question too, awarding them a preliminary injunction that prevents the mandate from being enforced against them.

The Supreme Court could follow suit, or it could issue a split ruling in which it finds the company owners have the right to make a claim but then concludes that the argument has no merit. In that scenario, the court would find that the mandate furthers a compelling government interest and does not unduly burden the company owners.

But the question remains one for the high court. Can corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have it both ways? All of the freedom from liability that incorporation provides, and a range of individual liberties when it suits an employer's whims?

As I've noted before, the lower courts have so far been split on this question, so it's what the Supreme Court thinks beginning next week that will really matter.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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