Is it religious freedom — or religious coercion?

     (Andre’ P. Kissel/AP Photo)

    (Andre’ P. Kissel/AP Photo)

    Here’s a question for the women who are reading this post: If your boss at work — citing his personal religious beliefs — insisted on limiting your access to contraception, would you be happy about that?

    If the answer is “no,” you’re in the American mainstream. As a national poll reported last year, nearly 70 percent of women say that the real issue is their health, not the boss’ “religious freedom.” But, of course, that statistic settled nothing. Private employers with strong religious beliefs — most notably, the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby Stores, an arts-and-crafts empire with 13,000 full-time workers — were ticked off that Obamacare required them to offer contraceptive coverage. David Green and his family, the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby, have sued in federal court, contending that they should be exempt from the health reform law.

    And yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that next year it will deliver the ultimate verdict. So here we go again, with the contraception issue that burned the Republicans so badly during the recent election season.

    One reason why most women voted Democratic in 2012 was because they viewed “religious freedom” as a threat to their personal health, as religious coercion. Conservatives kept invoking this “freedom,” but why should the boss of a private, for-profit firm have the right to impose his personal faith on female workers who don’t share that faith — and deny them the health benefits mandated by law, benefits that all private, for-profit firms are required to offer?

    That’s the key issue in the Hobby Lobby case. If corporations are indeed people — as the high court essentially decreed in Citizens United, when it said that firms, just like people, have a free-speech right to spend oodles of money on political campaigns – then perhaps people-corporations have religious consciences as well. The high court has never actually said that before, it has never said that the folks at the tippy top of the corporate pyramid have a First Amendment right to impose their religious faith on the work force, but, hey, there’s a first time for everything.

    But for a private company boss to invoke religion and thus mess with the sex lives of female employes … well, that seems a tad coercive.

    Churches are exempt from the contraception mandate, as are non-profit religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities, but all private companies that employ more than 50 people have to abide by the rules. Indeed, under traditional corporate law, firms are supposed to be ideologically and theologically diverse. As one lower federal court has already ruled, with respect to the contraception mandate issue, “We simply cannot understand how a for-profit secular corporation – apart from its owners – can exercise religion.”  As another court concurred, “General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employes, exercise religion.”

    Hobby Lobby’s owners say they should have the right to exercise religion, to offer their workers only the forms of contraception that they deem moral (apparently condoms are OK) and deny the forms of contraception that they deem immoral (drugs that they equate with abortion). The right to pick and choose, as it were, limiting the heath options of employes who don’t inhabit their moral universe.

    But if the high court says yes to Hobby Lobby’s Green family — decreeing that devout bosses can impose their faith on the underlings — it will open a can of worms. If it’s OK for an evangelical Christian to limit workers’ contraception choices in the name of religious freedom, then it should be OK for a homophobic boss (who hates gays in the name of religious freedom) to refuse to cover treatment of AIDS. And so on.

    The owners of Hobby Lobby incorporated their business in order to reap the tax benefits of incorporation — but if you want those very secular perks, you have to comply with employment and insurance law. You can’t have your cake (tax benefits) and eat it too (by invoking religious freedom, in violation of longstanding corporate law). This issue is really about women’s health – as most women already know.

    And I fully expect that the five Republican appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court will see it differently.

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    So much to be thankful for. Hope you agree. Have a great holiday.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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