In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that certain for-profit companies cannot be required to pay for specific types of contraceptives for their employees. On the surface, the decision protects the religious freedom of corporations and enables them to operate as sovereign faith-based entities. On a deeper level, the Supreme Court’s decision continues to strengthen the right of corporations to exercise their moral compass.
The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) represents, among many things, a move toward equality of access to healthcare. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act reinforces the American Medical Association’s wish to provide non-discriminatory healthcare to everyone in need. Those protesting the contraception mandate, including the company named in the suit, Hobby Lobby, argued that forcing organizations to provide contraceptives to employees was a violation of religious freedom, both for the organization and its employees. The Supreme Court decision favored this perspective. As a result, people who believe their employer has the responsibility to provide reasonable levels of healthcare, including access to contraceptives to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and reduce the likelihood of conception, are placed at the mercy of their employer to decide whether or not contraceptives violate the corporation’s religious freedom.
The bigger story of this ruling, however, is that the American judicial system seems adamant to protect the individual rights of corporations, already the world’s most powerful entities. An earlier Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, affirmed corporations’ right to independently contribute to political candidates’ campaigns. The depth of corporate pocketbooks makes their vote insurmountably more powerful. The Supreme Court’s contraceptive mandate decision further extends corporate power. Corporations now have the ability to choose not to participate in governmental programs because such participation would violate their religious freedom.
In thinking about the potential for unintended consequences, I can’t help but draw parallels to the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Only in this case, rather than a doctor animating a corpse, we have the court justices, from their chambers, building the consciousness of the corporate structure. Granted, the consciousness of corporations can be used for good and often is. Yet, can you imagine a scenario where the Jeff Skillings (former CEO of Enron) of the world leverage their power to pursue pro-social corporate values and not just the valuation of their stock price? What could Enron have done if they were granted a religious hall pass?
You can agree or disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. What is relevant is that corporations operate within a context where the cliché phrase, “It’s just business,” no longer applies. Today’s markets have morality. Companies such as Patagonia and Costco have raised the bar of how corporations should treat both people and the planet. Patagonia has taken steps to decrease its carbon footprint and Costco is a leader in fair pay for all employees. Companies that remain focused on market dominance and transactions also see morality. Make no mistake; the Supreme Court has mandated it. It is now incumbent for companies such as Hobby Lobby, which are steadfast in protecting their religious freedom, to respond to the court’s decision as a means to do good.