For-Profit Corporations Don't Have Religious Freedom, Court Rules

For-profit corporations do not have religious freedom protections, a three judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled. The case involved a furniture company owned by a Mennonite family that sued the government over birth control mandate. The ruling is at odds with a 10th Circuit decision that ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, which increases the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court will examine the cases.

Concluding that " ... for-profit secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise," the Court Friday denied, in a 2-1 decision, Conestoga Wood Specialities' request to withhold enforcement of the birth control mandate until their lawsuit is settled.

They cannot understand, Judge Robert Cowen wrote for the majority, how a for-profit company "that was created to make money could exercise such an inherently 'human' right. ... we simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation – apart from its owners – can exercise religion."

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In a dissenting opinion Judge Kent Jordon argued that the "deeply disappointing ruling rests on a cramped and confused understanding of the religious rights preserved by Congressional action and the Constitution. The government takes us down a rabbit hole where religious rights are determined by the tax code, with non-profit corporations able to express religious sentiments while for-profit corporations and their owners are told that business is business and faith is irrelevant. Meanwhile, up on the surface, where people try to live lives of integrity and purpose, that kind of division sounds as hollow as it truly is."

On July 19, the 10th Circuit granted Hobby Lobby's request for a similar preliminary injuction. Hobby Lobby, like Conestoga, is a owned by a Christian family that seeks to run the company based upon Christian principles.

The birth control mandate requires most businesses to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacients, sometimes called "morning-after pills," in their employee's health care plans. About 30 for-profit companies have filed suit over the requirement. About the same number of non-profit religious organizations have also sued.

Attorney Randall Wenger, who represents Conestoga, told the Central Penn Business Journal that the conflicting court opinions make it more likely that the Supreme Court will review the cases.

"We're exploring which is the best next step, but we certainly don't plan to stop here, because the issues are too important," he added. "A corporation is a separate legal entity, yes. But I think business owners, particularly family business owners, understand that a family business is a reflection of the family; it's the family that makes the choices about how the business is run. They're the ones who are making a decision about facilitating something that they find immoral."

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