In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court just announced its ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, holding that, “as applied to closely held corporations, the government’s HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).” The full opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, can be read here.
Although there is still much to digest, and although the majority opinion still leaves quite a bit of room for related battles to continue, it’s worth noting that that whatever perceived “narrowness” we see in the decision — confining things specifically to closely held corporations — remains a significant victory, particularly given our culture’s prevailing attitudes about business.
According to HHS, by simply incorporating one’s business in the pursuit of profit — “without in any way changing the size or nature of their businesses” — a company “would forfeit all RFRA (and free-exercise) rights” (quotes from Alito’s paraphrase). The arguments supporting such a view vary, including the principal argument advanced by HHS that corporations cannot “exercise religion.”
Alito dissects this from a variety of angles, and does so rather compellingly. But one of the more noteworthy sections is his refutation of the notion that for-profit corporations aren’t protected by RFRA because they “simply seek to make a profit.”
After reviewing powerful precedent in Braunfeld v. Brown, wherein five Orthodox Jewish merchants fought against requirements to close their business on Sundays, and after highlighting the Dictionary Act, in which “the wor[d] ‘person’ … include[s] corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals,” Alito cuts to the broader reality:
While it is certainly true that a central objective of for-profit corporations is to make money, modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so. For-profit corporations, with ownership approval, support a wide variety of charitable causes, and it is not at all uncommon for such corporations to further humanitarian and other altruistic objectives. Many examples come readily to mind. So long as its owners agree, a for-profit corporation may take costly pollution-control and energy conservation measures that go beyond what the law requires. A for-profit corporation that operates facilities in other countries may exceed the requirements of local law regarding working conditions and benefits. If for-profit corporations may pursue such worthy objectives, there is no apparent reason why they may not further religious objectives as well.
HHS would draw a sharp line between nonprofit corporations (which, HHS concedes, are protected by RFRA) and for-profit corporations (which HHS would leave unprotected), but the actual picture is less clear-cut. Not all corporations that decline to organize as nonprofits do so in order to maximize profit. For example, organizations with religious and charitable aims might organize as for-profit corporations because of the potential advantages of that corporate form, such as the freedom to participate in lobbying for legislation or campaigning for political candidates who promote their religious or charitable goals. In fact, recognizing the inherent compatibility between establishing a for-profit corporation and pursuing nonprofit goals, States have increasingly adopted laws formally recognizing hybrid corporate forms. Over half of the States, for instance, now recognize the “benefit corporation,” a dual-purpose entity that seeks to achieve both a benefit for the public and a profit for its owners.
I say this is noteworthy because the opposing view stretches well outside some of the more strategic HHS arguments. The idea that “for-profit” businesses are simply, merely, primarily “for profit,” and that the pursuit of such profit necessarily impairs, inhibits, distorts, or conflicts with one’s deeper, wider, more transcendent aims and ends, prevails across the culture at large. Such a view darkens the popular imagination in turn, whether in regards to policy, economic activity, or otherwise.
The truth is that through an appropriate framework of obedience, duty, and sacrifice to one’s neighbor and God, one can surely be for both God and profit. By pretending otherwise, the government does its people a great disservice, drawing false dichotomies and imposing coercive measures that cheapen and coarsen the fabric of culture and civilization.
The battle will surely continue, but as of today, we can be thankful that the Court has promoted a view of flourishing that orients business not as a narrow avenue for petty profit and materialism, but as a stream through which a holistic approach to prosperity can be pursued — aligned toward the full and tangible good of humanity, and driven by transcendent aims and ends.