Supreme Court Ruling Allows Up to 90 percent of For-Profit Corporations to Impose the Owners' Religious Beliefs on Their Employees

Posted July 2, 2014

MP3 Interview with Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow with Political Research Associates, conducted by Scott Harris


In a landmark ruling in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores case, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision on June 30 that allows the owners of some for-profit corporations to impose their religious beliefs on their employees when it comes to health care issues. The five justices of the court’s conservative majority held that family-owned businesses can deny their female workers contraceptives as part of their employee health insurance plan, when the owners object to certain forms of birth control required under the federal Affordable Care Act.

In an extension of the high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that affirmed corporate personhood for the purpose of making unrestricted political campaign contributions, the conservative majority has now declared that incorporated businesses have the right to hold religious beliefs, just like natural born humans. While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority emphasized that this ruling was narrow in scope, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her forceful dissent stated that this decision of “startling breadth" would allow corporations to opt out of almost any law that they find "incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."

While some initial analysis of the ruling mistakenly minimized the effect of this decision to a small number of “closely held” corporations, upon closer examination it turns out that fully 90 percent of all businesses in the U.S. are family-owned, employing over 50 percent of the nation’s workforce. Closely held, or non-publicly traded corporations that potentially could take advantage of the ruling include companies such as Cargill, Dell, Heinz, Dole Foods, the Koch Industries, Publix supermarkets, Ernst & Young, Amway, Toys-R-Us, Hilton and Bloomberg. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow with Political Research Associates, who assesses the likely consequences of the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case.

FREDERICK CLARKSON: This is the first time in the history of the United States that a private, secular corporation has been granted religious rights under the First Amendment. It's an extraordinary development and that is probably where it's greatest significance is going to be over time, because, as we know, a Supreme Court decision comes down and a body of federal case law develops as a result of it. We don't know what that body looks like yet, but I would guess they would be related to that.

But the other thing that is lost in a lot of the coverage. And that is that this is not just about contraceptives – it's only about four contraceptives really. The insurance package that Hobby Lobby provides its employee is glad to provide coverage of 16 other kinds of contraceptives, including birth control pills. These are for four contraceptives as a matter of the religious beliefs of the owners of the company, they say cause abortions. Now these include emergency contraception and IUDs. Medical science and the American Medical Association and others say that's not true. They prevent fertilization of the egg, but not the implantation. And so, it's not an abortifacient according to medical science, but as a matter of religious belief, the Supreme Court has now said that a company can defy medical science and get an exempt from federal law, and that's an extraordinary development.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As you read the Constitution, and many other scholars' (writings), it seems that there is an erosion of the barrier between church and state. And in the long run, what is your concern about where this particular conservative majority on the Supreme Court could lead the country?

FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, I think that the Hobby Lobby case – and some of the others – is an explicitly theocratic slant to the direction of American jurisprudence. If it stays headed in this direction, again it's a small wedge, but it's a wedge. Now that said, the church-state separation means religious freedom for everyone. We're all equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of our particular religious beliefs. Or non-beliefs. We all have equal standing. Government is to be the uncompromised guarantor of those rights and individual conscience.

Here, we have situations where, particularly in the case of Hobby Lobby, but also in the (McCullen v. Coakley Massachusetts abortion clinic) buffer zone case, where it's okay to discriminate against people and to bully individual's rights of individual conscience. And that's a bad direction in which we end up getting pitted against ourselves in terms of our religious beliefs, our general religious culture and even by state and by region.

There are places in the country where this kind of decision is more popular than others. And I think we're going to be seeing great state and regional tensions over this kind of stuff in the not-too-distant future.

BETWEEN THE LINES: On the issue of public opinion, as you said earlier, the Supreme Court decision here could inflame public opinion around the country in places where this kind of ruling against contraceptives through particular employers could have a lot of people angry at what was decided here. On the other hand, there will be some political impact, no doubt in the coming elections, where Republicans' objections to abortion and many politicians on the right's objections to even providing contraceptives will be an issue in the campaigning for Congress this November. Overall, where do you think public opinion is at, in a case like this?

FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, I've already seen some polling because even in the New York Times, talking about the polls of 10,000 people, and people think that insurance should cover contraceptives, period. And that by a vast majority, something 53 to 37, something like that. At least in terms of generalized opinion, yeah. I don't think people are as animated about this as the political community is. But nevertheless, I think you're right. Coming into an election, this will be a polarizing and demagogue issue, and far out of proportion to what's actually involved, and it will be about whether the government should cover contraception and interfere with how Fox News will frame it.

But the larger issues of corporate personhood are probably the things that really need to be most talked about. And what is the religious freedom of a corporation? Will it go beyond the narrow decision that (Justice Samuel) Alito wrote? It seems likely, given that there's so many issues - the expansion of the notion of corporate personhood. So that's what I hope that people will be prepared to talk about more forcefully with candidates of both parties.

Frederick Clarkson is author of the book "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy." Find more information on Political Research Associates at

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