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Do companies have a moral compass?

By Amy Sepinwall
Special to The Washington Post

This coming week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in what is likely to be one of the most contentious cases of the year: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The case consolidates two lower-court opinions on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, a provision requiring that large businesses include coverage for various forms of birth control in their employee health plans. But it’s about far more than birth control. The more important debate is: Can a business claim to have a conscience?

The court challenges were brought by Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores owned by the Green family, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a company that manufactures kitchen cabinets and is owned by the Hahn family. Both companies maintain that their owners object to contraception on religious grounds and that the contraceptive mandate interferes with the owners’ rights to religious freedom. Hobby Lobby prevailed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, while Conestoga Wood lost before the 3rd Circuit. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear both cases to resolve the diverging legal opinions.

Because 89 percent of Americans, including 82 percent of Catholics, believe that contraception is morally acceptable – and because most women of childbearing age receive health insurance through their employers – many find the prospect of circumventing the contraceptive mandate troubling. And so they are inclined to deny that a company can practice religion, let alone assert rights of conscientious objection.

It might seem more principled to determine whether the notion of a corporate conscience makes sense in the first place. Unsurprisingly, Hobby Lobby and its counterparts seek to do just this, and they resoundingly favor a wide range of corporate constitutional rights. They’re relying on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, arguing that the case recognized for-profit corporations’ First Amendment rights of expression and that these rights include religious as well as political expression. In fact, however, the court in Citizens United was far more circumspect. It identified the importance of speech, no matter the speaker. But it did so to protect individual citizens’ interests by allowing them to hear as much speech as possible, not to give companies full protection under the First Amendment.

Stepping back, it is worth noting that this controversy has arisen because of our choices about the kind of health care system we want. Our resistance to single-payer national health care means that employers, whether corporations or individuals, stand as middlemen between employees and their coverage. (Or between women and their reproductive freedom.) There would be no need for a contraceptive mandate, and no need to entertain objections to it, if the federal government were in charge of dispensing health insurance in the first place.

Of course, even national health care wouldn’t solve the problem of conscience: Under a national system, it would be individual taxpayers, instead of employers, who would contend that they were being forced to fund conduct that conflicted with their religious beliefs. But the complaint would be much less compelling coming from a taxpayer, as tax dollars already fund contraception under Medicaid.

Living in a country where tax dollars are used for ends that some citizens disagree with may be the inevitable price of democracy. Having to offer contraception that conflicts with one’s religious beliefs, or having access to contraception turn on one’s place of employment, needn’t be.

Sepinwall is an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
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