Is Justice Samuel Alito really that clueless? During the 2010 State of the Union address, he nervously mouthed the words “not true” when President Obama warned that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling would allow corporate special interests to dominate U.S. elections. A few days ago, Alito wrote an outrageous opinion in the Hobby Lobby case affirming the religious rights of corporations but insisting this would not do much other than prevent a few companies from having to include several kinds of birth control in their health insurance plans.
Alito’s claim about the narrow scope is already beginning to unravel. Although the written opinion suggested that only four types of contraception such as IUDs that religious zealots view as tantamount to abortion would be affected, the Court subsequently ordered lower courts to rehear cases in which employers sought to deny coverage for any form of birth control.
Business owners with other religious views contrary to federal policy will undoubtedly soon speak up. This is exactly what Justice Ginsburg warned about in her powerful dissent, calling Alito’s opinion “a decision of startling breadth” that enables “commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, [to] opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Alito was apparently so shaken by Ginsburg’s accusation that he felt a need to deny it at length. The denial is not only unconvincing, it is clumsy and takes Alito into some strange territory for a supposed business-friendly conservative.
In their religious zeal, Alito and the other conservatives on the Court apparently forgot that corporations have been trying for the past century to depict themselves as totally apart from religious and moral concerns. Business enterprises are amoral institutions, laissez-faire proponents such as Milton Friedman repeatedly told us—they exist only to maximize their profit. It has often been corporate critics who have brought religious and moral issues into disputes over business practices.
Alito seems to embrace the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) when he writes (p.23):
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.
Alito even makes reference to growing acceptance of the benefit corporation, which he describes as “a dual-purpose entity that seeks to achieve both a benefit for the public and a profit for its owners” (p.24).
It’s unclear whether Alito sincerely believes in the validity of CSR initiatives or is simply using this comparison to try to make his assertion of corporate religious rights more palatable. Oddly, he describes as “unlikely” the possibility that a large publicly traded company would ever make a religious claim, even though such firms are among the biggest promoters of CSR.
Whatever Alito really thinks, his reference to CSR does not make the ruling any more convincing. CSR is already problematic to the extent that its practitioners try to use their supposedly high-minded voluntary initiatives to discourage more stringent and more enforceable government regulation. But at least these corporations are simply trying to influence government policymaking rather than asserting an absolute right to be exempt because of supposed religious convictions.
As much as Alito tries to deny it, his ruling has the potential to cause a great deal of mischief. A religious component can already be seen in the climate crisis denial camp; what will prevent companies from asserting that their beliefs prevent them from complying with environmental regulations? Is it that hard to imagine that business owners holding a scripture-based belief that women should be subservient to men may claim they should not be subject to anti-discrimination and equal pay laws?
Alito seems to be opening the door to such aggressive stances when he insists that “federal courts have no business addressing” the question of whether a religious claim by a corporation is reasonable (p.36). It’s true that, in general, government should not be passing judgment on matters of faith, but that principle falls apart when special interests try to use religion to undermine democratically adopted public policies. It’s even worse when those interests are employers asserting their beliefs at the expense of their workers.
The Supreme Court has done considerable damage by elevating the free speech rights of corporations; now it is compounding the sin by giving those corporations special religious rights as well.