Matters of religion are “fundamentally personal,” according to a unanimous decision upholding the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand access to birth control. For this reason, the court held that a for-profit corporation cannot immunize itself from a federal law by claiming that the law violates its faith. People have religious faith. Businesses don’t.
The most interesting aspect of this decision is probably not the court’s reasoning, it is the identity of the judge who wrote the opinion. Judge Julia Smith Gibbons is a conservative, George W. Bush-appointed member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. To date, judges considering challenges to the Obama Administration’s rules requiring most employers to include birth control in their health benefits package, have split largely — although not entirely — along party lines. Gibbons’ vote to uphold the administration’s rules should give supporters of reproductive freedom some amount of hope that the law will ultimately be upheld by the Supreme Court, although the politically charged birth control rules still face an uphill climb in the GOP-dominated high Court.
Gibbons’ opinion rests on two important premises. First, she rejects the argument that a for-profit corporation’s owners can have their religious liberties violated by a law that only regulates their business. The entire purpose of forming a corporation, the opinion explains, “is to create a distinct legal entity, with legal rights, obligations, powers, and privileges different from those of the natural individuals who created it, who own it, or whom it employs.” In essence, a religious conservative cannot have it both ways by accepting all the benefits of forming a corporation without also bearing the consequences of that decision. They have to take the bitter with the sweet.
Just as importantly, Gibbons notes that the Supreme Court has consistently limited religious liberties claims to “individuals and non-profit religious organizations,” and it has not extended them to corporations that exist for the primary purpose of making a profit. “Fundamentally personal” matters of faith are uniquely human concerns. It makes little sense to say that an auto parts company is Catholic, or that a chain of crafting stores are evangelical.