In his commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, President Obama urged future business leaders to avoid the pure pursuit of profit and instead to think about “what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood.” The president acknowledged that many successful CEOs “didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.” These lines echoed similar comments Obama made last year about how “we can’t leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries.”
The president should be commended for recognizing that people often approach their jobs with purposes other than mere profit-seeking. But his comments will come as a total shock for anyone who has read the legal briefs his administration has filed in the cases challenging the HHS mandate — several of which will be argued in federal courts of appeal this week. For at the same time the president is urging graduates to use businesses to pursue “broader purposes,” his lawyers are telling judges across the country that businesses are categorically incapable of acting for such broader purposes, at least if those purposes are religious. If you run a business, the government’s litigation position is not that you “can’t leave your values at the door” — it is that you must leave them at the door (again, at least if they are religious values).
It is hard to believe that anyone really wants the amoral and valueless corporate culture this approach suggests. Indeed, businesses of all political stripes can be observed acting for all sorts of moral and ethical reasons other than mere profit-seeking. Some businesses won’t sell meat because they believe it is morally wrong to kill animals. Some stores won’t partner with the Boy Scouts because they think there should be gay Scout leaders. Some businesses cut off their relationship with Chick-Fil-A because they disliked its owners’ statements about gay marriage. No one ever questions whether profit-making businesses are capable of making these moral and ethical judgments, or similar judgments about environmentalism, or the importance of diversity, or behaving ethically. We can all observe this happening around us every day, in the places we shop and in our own businesses.
So perhaps the real question raised by the president’s comments and the HHS-mandate cases is this: In a world where we accept and promote the idea of businesses pursuing “broader purposes” based on moral, ethical, and philosophical principles, can the government really prohibit businesses from acting based on religious principles? Given the protections for religion in both the Constitution and federal law, it is hard to see how the government could justify the special targeting of religious activities for adverse treatment that they’ve fought for with the HHS mandate. The far more logical approach — indeed, the only approach permissible under federal law — is to recognize that people and organizations are allowed to exercise religion any way they please. Including while earning a living.