The recent federal appeals court victory of Hobby Lobby, the U.S. chain of arts and crafts stores, has its odd aspects. The appeals court vindicated Hobby Lobby's claim that, even though it is a profit-making business, it can reasonably argue that it has a religious freedom right not to comply with the new requirement that employee health plans must cover all contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives that can kill nascent life. That businesses have religious freedom rights isn't what's odd—at least not to me.
Rather, the case has two other very odd aspects. The federal government claims—although those appeals court judges weren't convinced—that because Hobby Lobby is a profit-making entity, it can't have a religious freedom claim. Businesses exist to make money and making money is a secular endeavour, so religious freedom is irrelevant. But, there are many ways to make money and run a business, and companies all the time make value judgments—even religious decisions—about just such things. Chick-fil-A restaurants and Hobby Lobby stores stay closed on Sundays, not to maximize profits (!) but rather to treat Sunday as a day of rest and reverence. Mark Rienzi notes more examples:
"Chipotle recently decided not to sponsor a Boy Scout event because the company disagreed with the Scouts' policy on openly gay scoutmasters. It was 'the right thing to do,' Chipotle said. Starbucks has ethical standards for the coffee beans it buys. Vegan stores refuse to sell animal products because the believe doing so is immoral. Some businesses refuse to invest in sweatshops or pornography companies or polluters."
There is another odd aspect. The federal government says that Hobby Lobby can't exercise religious freedom because it is a corporation. Hobby Lobby's owners may have deep religious convictions about abortion-causing contraceptives and certainly do have religious freedom rights themselves, but corporations are distinct from their owners and so cannot have the religious freedom rights their owners have. Here again, however, the government seems confused. It concedes that churches have religious freedom rights against the contraceptives mandate—and yet churches are corporate structures. It concedes limited religious freedom rights to religious nonprofits—but nonprofits are themselves corporations. (The official name of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance includes "Inc.") Moreover, as Rienzi and others have shown, the courts have acknowledged that corporations have other freedom rights, such as the freedom of speech, and conversely are themselves—not just their owners—routinely penalized for breaking laws (e.g. bribing foreign officials). Amid this landscape, why would religious freedoms be denied to corporations?
The peculiarities in the specific Hobby Lobby case aside, go with me one step further. Organizations are tools or mechanisms by which individuals put their convictions into practice—vehicles for something big and lasting. Therefore, respect for religious freedom requires allowing organizations to be shaped by religious convictions in what they do and how they do it (religious freedom, of course, has limits, just as does every other freedom and right).
It is an exercise of religious freedom when an orthodox Jewish family excludes pork from its kitchen and is careful not to mix milk and meat—and when the family's deli, or supermarket, follows the same rules. It's an exercise of religious freedom when parents in Montreal decide to send sons to Loyola High School—and also when Loyola High School insists on maintaining its Catholic convictions in its curricula, rather than acceding to Quebec's mandatory view of religions as mere cultural phenomena.
If religious freedom is limited to being only an individual right, then people of faith will be marginalized and disempowered. They will be able to put their convictions about honoring God while serving their neighbours into practice in only very limited ways—when they write blog posts but not when managing a website, when homeschooling but not when operating a school, when urging a niece not to have an abortion but not when running a hospital. And note well how this limitation to individuals undermines individual religious freedom itself: without religiously diverse organizations, many individuals will be unable to find a place of work that honours and reflects their religious values, and the same goes for clients seeking services.
Unless wrongly impeded by overweening and homogenizing government rules, people of faith do exercise their faith in their homes, in houses of worship, through community-serving ministries like schools and adoption agencies, and through companies of conviction. This is the obedience they offer to God and a gift they offer to their neighbours.