Do Corporations Pray?

The most significant bunch of legal challenges to Obamacare beginning to work their way through the courts involve claims that corporations–some for-profits, some non-profits, some distinctively religious enterprises, some entirely secular–enjoy religious exercise rights that are infringed upon by the contraception coverage mandate. When Mitt Romney touched off an extended controversy by insisting on the grater reality of the legal fiction that corporations are too people, he did not go so far as to suggest that the entities prayed.

Politico‘s Kathryn Smith has a pretty thorough rundown on the lawsuits and their various prospects, but the bottom line is the kind of judicial mess that begs for High Court clarification. Still, a couple of judges have addressed the “corporate exercise of religion” question:

In a Nov. 19 ruling, Judge Joe Heaton of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma denied a preliminary injunction request from the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.

“General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors,” he wrote. Hobby Lobby has appealed the injunction decision.

Similarly, another judge noted that the allegedly aggrieved business executives haven’t lost a bit of their own religious freedom:

Judge Carol E. Jackson of the Eastern District…said the contraception rule still allows plaintiff Frank O’Brien, who owns a company that mines and distributes refractory and ceramic materials, to practice religion, just not through his for-profit, secular business.

“Frank O’Brien is not prevented from keeping the Sabbath, from providing a religious upbringing for his children, or from participating in a religious ritual such as Communion,” Jackson wrote. “Instead, plaintiffs remain free to exercise their religion, by not using contraceptives and by discouraging employees from using contraceptives.”

Makes sense. But we are, however, living in a Golden Age of imagined religious persecution, in which the seasonal gestures of department stores are a grievous injury to the faithful, and the inability to make public policy consistent with religiously-based political views is deemed martyrdom. So it’s no surprise religious conservatives are seeking legal recognition of the spiritual autonomy of their businesses, at a significant cost to their employees.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.