Monday, July 7, 2014

Hobby Lobby decision questions equality

Posted By on Mon, Jul 7, 2014 at 12:29 PM

click to enlarge John Krull is the publisher at TheStatehouseFile.com
  • John Krull is the publisher at TheStatehouseFile.com
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

George Orwell
Animal Farm

With the Hobby Lobby Inc. decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has managed to bring the English allegorical satirist George Orwell’s words back to life.

Orwell intended “Animal Farm,” his short tale of animals overthrowing an oppressive farmer before becoming more oppressive themselves, to be a parable about the Russian Revolution. A democratic socialist, he saw the upheaval that led to 70 years of communist tyranny as an example of unanticipated but predictable consequences – consequences that served to thwart the revolution’s supposed goals.

That brings us to America’s highest court and Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a successful chain of crafts shops whose owners proclaim they run their business based on evangelical Christian principles. For that reason, they went to court to fight the provision in the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – that required their insurance provider to offer company employees certain kinds of birth control. They claimed doing so violated their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby Inc. Following reasoning similar to that they applied in the Citizens United decision, five of the nation’s justices determined closely held companies could have First Amendment free exercise rights. For all practical purposes, they determined that corporations were citizens themselves.

The response from many good government advocates took their cue from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s scorching dissent in which she pointed out the many ways corporations could use this decision to pick and choose which laws they will follow based on their avowed religious principles. That started a cottage industry of “what ifs.” Would it mean that companies owned by pacifists, for example, could withhold a portion of the taxes that violate their religious principles by supporting military campaigns? How about business owners who object to the death penalty?

Other critics pointed to the supposed hypocrisy of Hobby Lobby Inc., which buys goods from countries like China and its policy of forced abortions and even has invested in contraceptive manufacturing. They argued that the owners’ exercise of their religious views wasn’t so much free as highly selective.

All of that may be true, but it also is in many ways beside the point.

The real problem with the Hobby Lobby Inc. decision – and the Citizens United one that came before it – is what it does to the definitions of citizenship and equality before the law.

Normally I am in favor of expansions of personal liberty, even when I feel that liberty is likely to be asserted in pursuit of goals or issues that are perverse or wrong-headed. If America doesn’t stand for freedom, America then really stands for nothing.

But at the heart of that assertion of freedom is that it has to exist for all of us equally if it’s going to exist for any of us.

That’s what disturbing about this decision.

The “Inc.” part of Hobby Lobby Inc. is important. The act of incorporating involves an assertion by the owners that the corporation isn’t them – that it is a separate entity. This act of incorporation allows owners many protections that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them, not the least of which is sheltering their personal assets from creditors in the event of some misfortune of business.

But the owners of Hobby Lobby Inc. have asserted – and the five justices have swallowed – an argument that the corporation really isn’t separate, but instead is simply an extension of them and their personal religious beliefs.

And they have been allowed to do this while still being able to preserve the advantages – the additional protections – that come with being incorporated.

It is one thing for corporations to be granted the same rights that citizens have if those corporations are being treated in the same fashion that all citizens are. It is another thing altogether if those corporations are being granted citizens’ rights while being granted privileges not available to all citizens.

As Orwell said – albeit ironically – some animals apparently are more equal than others.

In this country, thanks to five Supreme Court justices, it’s now clear that the animals who are more equal than others are the ones with “Inc.” attached to their names.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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