People Can Be Religious in Business

A court decision on Wednesday spells more trouble for Obamacare’s abortion-pill mandate. Defenders of that mandate have been crowing about two court rulings against Christian businesses, notably Hobby Lobby. But the government’s position is much weaker than its defenders let on.

Wednesday’s decision, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, reversed one of the government’s only successes and instead granted an injunction to a religiously- owned manufacturing business. That means four out of the five court rulings on this Obamacare mandate against businesses have issued injunctions in favor of religious freedom. The fifth, Hobby Lobby, is seeking a similar order on appeal.

Alliance Defending Freedom has been blessed to obtain two of the preliminary injunctions to protect two “for profit” employers founded or run by families of faith. Legal authority is on the side of religious freedom, including the faith convictions of business owners, and we believe appellate courts and the Supreme Court will agree.

The government presents a circular argument to explain why people cannot exercise religion when they earn a living for their families in a business. First, the government says religious exercise cannot happen through corporations. But corporations are just a mechanism by which people associate, act, and contribute to society. This is why the Supreme Court has vindicated religious-freedom claims for several incorporated plaintiffs (such as Lukumi, Inc., and O Centro Espirita, Inc.).

The government’s response to this point is to shift ground and say it is a company’s “for profit” status that renders a corporation incapable of exercising religion. But the Supreme Court has likewise recognized the ability to bring free-exercise claims on behalf of for-profit enterprises, such as for an Amish business in United States v. Lee, and for plaintiffs seeking compensation. The courts have consistently recognized the ability of closely held corporation owners to bring religious-exercise claims.

The government’s response to this fact is to just dodge the question and repeat its dictum that corporations cannot exercise religion. So we’re back where we started. Justice Samuel Alito rebutted a similar point in a lecture recently, pointing out that if corporations have no First Amendment rights, the for-profit New York Times Company could never have won its groundbreaking cases.

Moreover, there’s no bright-line way to categorize “for profits” as secular and only non-profits as “religious.” State corporate law lets ordinary corporations perform any activity, therefore including religion. Alliance Defending Freedom’s corporate client Tyndale House Publishers is thoroughly religious and charitable, and Hobby Lobby’s owners also run a Christian bookstore chain that the court absurdly labeled “secular.”

Thankfully a federal judge in Washington, D.C. rejected the government’s view and awarded a preliminary injunction to Tyndale House Publishers against the abortion-pill mandate. Scholarly research likewise shows that “judicial precedent on this issue points entirely in one direction — the direction favoring recognition of corporate free-exercise rights.”

Oddly, one religious doctrine the Obama administration apparently embraces is Christ’s injunction that man cannot serve both God and mammon; that is, a political party that rails against corporate greed now has a presidential administration arguing in court that greed is the only thing businesses can pursue.

And these cases ask whether the government really can force someone in business to abandon their religious beliefs and convictions for that reason. Christians know the answer to that question: Jesus is the Lord of their entire lives, including professionally, or he is not Lord at all. This has always been central to Christianity and should come as a surprise to no one. The Christian Gospel directs people to follow God by conducting their daily business with integrity (Luke 19:8-10, Luke 3:12-14).

The Obama administration is declaring entire areas of human life “secular” — like business, health care, and education — and then saying religion can’t be exercised there, so the government can have its way. This is a power-grab — an attempt to confine religion itself into a diminishing and microscopic category. It is inconsistent with the history and precedent behind the First Amendment as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In a society facing increasing government control over the lives of all Americans, this is a battle that liberty must win.

— Matt Bowman is senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom and lead counsel in several lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s abortion pill mandate.

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