No Cigarettes For You, No Birth Control For Me?
Religion & Liberty Online

No Cigarettes For You, No Birth Control For Me?

The CVS chain made an announcement a few weeks ago: they would no longer sell tobacco products at their stores. CVS President and CEO Larry Merlo said:

As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role through our 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners. By removing tobacco products from our retail shelves, we will better serve our patients, clients and health care providers while positioning CVS Caremark for future growth as a health care company. Cigarettes and tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is delivered. This is the right thing to do.

Merlo’s own father died of lung cancer, and Merlo felt that this was not only a business decision, but an ethical one.

Ashley E. McGuire, at The Hill, wants to know what the difference is between this, and the decision of Hobby Lobby owners, the Green family, to choose not to offer certain forms of birth control and abortion coverage in employee health care plans. The decision by Merlo was met with praise by the press: of course, you should stop selling cigarettes! They are bad! Unhealthy! Kudos!

What about the Greens?

But no spiffy Facebook polls or presidential kudos for the Greens. No, they get a lawsuit. Because the Obama administration is forcing employers to provide these drugs in healthcare plans as a result of Obamacare, the Greens have had to fight their way to the Supreme Court, with the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defending them all the way.

One of the central arguments of the Obama administration’s lawyers is that one cannot concurrently pursue a profit and have values, especially when those values are religious by nature.  In one related case, the Department of Justice said, “Plaintiffs’ challenge rests largely on the theory that a for-profit, secular corporation…can claim to exercise a religion and thereby avoid the reach of laws designed to regulate commercial activity. This cannot be.” That’s fancy speak for, “If you turn a profit, say good-bye to your constitutional rights.”

Yet CVS’s announcement, and the president’s subsequent congratulations, were plain evidence that corporations do have a moral purpose, and that their CEOs play an important role in steering that purpose.

CVS is not saying you can’t smoke; they just aren’t going to sell you those products. Hobby Lobby isn’t telling anyone they can’t use birth control; they just aren’t going to pay for it.

So, let’s get this straight: a business owner or CEO can make an ethical, moral decision, but not if it’s based on religious beliefs? That seems to be the hair-splitting that’s going on. CVS isn’t getting hauled into court by millions of smokers who demand that their favorite store continue to stock their smokes; they’ll just get them somewhere else. But the Greens (and other business owners like them) are being forced to defend their decision not to pay for something they believe is morally untenable.

As McGuire says, “It’s discrimination. Discrimination based on personal moral and religious belief. And that’s immoral. And unconstitutional.”

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.