The news yesterday that the Supreme Court is going to hear the Hobby Lobby case momentarily brought the question of religious liberty back to the forefront of our national consciousness.

There are a variety of aspects to the case, many of which are worth considering.  But one that I have been thinking about in recent months is the evolution of corporate social responsibility and how, if at all, its widespread adoption might shape people’s intuitions on this particular case.

At first glance, it seems a bit funny to think that corporations can have practices or beliefs that might be justified on religious grounds, like Hobby Lobby’s now infamous objections to contraception and their subsequent refusal to fund insurance plans that would cover it.  The Supreme Court has (notoriously!) decided that corporate personhood entails organizations can spend money in elections like, well, normal persons can.

But it’s not clear why we would object, given that money making corporations have made it very clear that they have ethical positions that are core to their company culture, regardless of the individual beliefs of the people who work there. Look at Amazon, Starbucks, and Google’s support of gay rights, both domestically and around the world:  whatever you make of that particular moral question, it seems that if we are willing to countenance corporations acting as corporations in those particular ways, as we clearly do, then denying that corporations can have similarly embedded religious outlooks and practices seems simply arbitrary.

And, indeed, many companies do act according to their religious principles and not only Christian business, either.  Many Jewish businesses must be closed on the Sabbath and Sharia banks are not simply in the Middle East (or so my fearsome Googling tells me!).

Of course, this is a point about business that young evangelicals have drunk deeply.  The generation that grew up with “worldview training” heard plenty about bridging the “sacred/secular” divide when we were young.  Now that we grow old, that mentality has been buttressed by the Kuyperian-influenced outlook of places like Q, where God’s involvement in “every square inch” of our lives and practices is as close to an orthodoxy as you’ll find.  But it’s also taken tangible form, as many younger evangelicals have started businesses that are aimed at “doing well by doing good,” integrating the pursuit of profits with the pursuit of justice for the disadvantaged.  The religious outlook of the founders is often buried; we like being more coy about how we integrate our Christianity into things, after all, so Bible verses on fry boats ain’t quite our style.  But the fundamental principle is the same:  Hobby Lobby is a more mature, more explicit model for what many young evangelicals have sought to build.

Of course, this is a case where the religious practices of the business are conflicting with the government’s directives about the sort of health care its employees are obligated to expect.  We’ve been through the arguments surrounding it before, so I’m not keen on repeating all of that.  I’ll simply point to this excellent paper that lays out the legal case for Hobby Lobby’s defense and open the floor, er, comments for anyone who reads it and disagrees to make the case.

But this case will be a real conflict for young evangelicals, for whom the distribution of birth control sometimes seems like a shibboleth that borders on a right.  For many of them, I suspect the wariness toward Hobby Lobby and the conservative case on this question has more to do with commitments to contraception personally and as a social good than any understanding of religious liberty or corporate religious beliefs.


Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Matthew Loftus

    Simple solution: abolish insurance and have a single payer medicaid/medicare for all system! or if you can’t stomach that, generous HSAs with catastrophic care guaranteed. See how easy that was?

    (but since we’re stuck with the inane & wasteful system that we have, i guess we have to have these conversations… and you’re right.)

  • fctorino

    Thanks Mr.Anderson for this article. I wended down here after reading the LA Times editorial opinion rejecting Hobby Lobby’s religious right to non-contraception. My quibble with your article is that neither Google nor Amazon advocated for gay rights legally but only as a human right. (Perhaps both Amazon and Google legally protested Proposition 8 as “friends of the court?”) In contrast, Hobby Lobby is protesting Obama’s HealthCare mandate as a legal right.

    • I don’t know what you mean by “human right” or “legal right” here, but they have definitely contributed to political campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage.

  • Kevin Peterson

    I think the issue is more clear if you use “abortifacients” in place of “contraceptives”.
    Hobby Lobby is ok with some forms of contraceptives, just not ones that are specifically abortion inducing.

  • run262

    Hobby Lobby is not opposing contraception coverage. They oppose being forced to pay for abortifacient drugs. But that is beside the point. The question is whether the government can force you to do something that conflicts with your religious beliefs. This case has wider implications beyond the ACA and if Hobby Lobby were to lose would set a dangerous precedent. Every rational and thoughtful person should should be 100% behind Hobby Lobby, even if they disagree with their views.

    • Christian Vagabond

      Of course the government can force you to do something against your religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby might believe that gays are going to hell, but if a gay couple enters their store they have to treat them the same as any other customer. A few months ago workers at a Hobby Lobby store told Jewish customers that they won’t sell Hanukkah products because the owners are Christian. That’s illegal, and Hobby Lobby had to hurry up and apologize or else they faced lawsuits.

      The whole point of the Civil Rights movement was that racists thought it was immoral for women and minorities to have the same rights as whites. And they believed the Bible backed them on their racism. The government had to force schools and businesses to hire and serve minorities even though doing so conflicted with their religious beliefs.

      • >A few months ago workers at a Hobby Lobby store told Jewish customers
        that they won’t sell Hanukkah products because the owners are Christian.
        That’s illegal, and Hobby Lobby had to hurry up and apologize or else
        they faced lawsuits.

        I think you are confused. That was stupid! But it isn’t illegal for Hobby Lobby to pick and choose what products to sell based on their religious beliefs. They had to hurry up and apologize or face a *boycott*.

      • R262

        No they cannot and you are comparing apples to oranges in all of your examples. All are poor ones. Lawsuits have been won by those who do not believe in vaccinating their children due to religious conviction, churches are free to hire those who hold their creed, etc. Had the lawsuits against Hobby Lobby regarding the Hannukah products gone forth, they would have lost. You cannot force a private company to sell a product. It is unconstitutional.

        Regarding your example of the gay couple, providing service to customers and providing abortions for employees are to separate things. The two are not comparable.

        Lastly, racists used the Bible to back their beliefs not because they truly believed it, but because it was convenient to use. It had nothing to do with religious beliefs and legally no group used that as a defense in a case to discriminate against African-Americans.

        • Christian Vagabond

          Churches are free to hire according to their creed. Hobby Lobby is not a church. And if you think that racists do not genuinely believe that their racism is mandated and approved by God, then you need to study history.

  • John

    How about the fact that the majority of garbage they sell is made in China…by workers forced to work on Sunday…who are only allowed to have one and rarely two children, forced abortions etc…Why are the “Christians” silent?? Why does the owner of Hobby Lobby not address this and refuse to support such evil?? Oh yeah, they pipe in “Christian” music while you all browse the latest Chinese imports…and you wonder why the world laughs??

    • Bethany Persons

      So, are you saying that Hobby Lobby should be forced to go against their religious beliefs in the case of health insurance because they aren’t 100% consistent with their application of them? Those seem like separate questions to me. Correcting their inconsistency should come from within the church, not in the form of karmic punishment via government regulation.

      • Christian Vagabond

        Hobby Lobby is a secular business. Their sole purpose is to sell craft products and make a profit. In no way should they be able to dictate the private choices of employees.

        • I can’t bring myself to care about the religious exemption portion of this case because I’m depressed that opposition to the monstrosity of executive fiat compelling specific services is construed as “dictating private choices of employees”.

          If this construal is any indication than I agree with Matt; that cultural identification with contraception is so strong as to render the discussion of the real issues nonsensical. But at some point the shoe of Federal power will be on the other foot – see the NRA thought exercise above…

        • r262

          They are NOT dictating the choices of their employees. Please stick to facts. They oppose PAYING for the personal choices of their employees. Their is a world of difference.

          Also, are you saying that secular business owners have no right to live out their religious convictions simply because they are “secular”? That is not what Christianity teaches nor does it reflect the principles of the Kingdom Christ talks about.

          • Christian Vagabond

            Paying an employee a salary is by definition providing money for that employee to use as she pleases. If a Hobby Lobby employee uses her salary to pay for an abortion, then Hobby Lobby has provided money to make that abortion possible. So saying that they oppose paying for personal choices is silly; they already pay for them.

    • CP

      And if Hobby Lobby only worked with and sought business from people and other corporations who agreed with them exactly in all areas as to be sure they didn’t, according to your standards, compromise on their beliefs then they would be exclusive and snobby, right? Right.

      • John

        My standards? I bow the knee to King Jesus. They are, in my opinion, plain and simple makin’ a killin’ off of dupes. Same as Chick Fil A. If Ceasar says, render it. Or, be willing to deal with the punishment. Tell IRS, ACA enforcers, to bring it on…

        • Which they are. They’re also testing the limits of Caesar’s power and arguing against the injustice of Caesar’s use of power *in the way that Caesar has ordained for them.* So…doesn’t seem like the simple appeal to “Caesar” does much for your argument here.

  • Caleb W

    Yes, lets all have some sympathy for the so-called “ethical positions” of corporate cultures. The poor babies.

    making corporations have made it very clear that they have ethical
    positions that are core to their company culture, regardless of the
    individual beliefs of the people who work there. – See more at:

  • wmrharris

    The question has always been, what other religiously determined rights for corporations are in this bag? The expansion of corporate rights vis a vis the worker is hardly something to be taken lightly, or for that matter excused in the name of conscience. At the center is the assertion that a corporation may justly deprive workers of rights they otherwise would have in the marketplace.

    In a religiously plural society, the outcome of freedom of religion or conscience for corporations results inevitably in a set of corporations with differing standards regarding employees. When the religious (or non-religious) stance of the corporate leadership takes precedence, then the employee’s expectation of equality diminishes. It is hard to see how this is a winning, culture-making approach.

    • Theoretically, I think that sort of conflict is possible. However, in this case, you’d have to demonstrate that people have a *right* to the sort of contraception the Greens object to. And that’s a claim that seems to me to land somewhere between silly and absurd.

      • wmrharris

        The right the worker possesses is the right to be treated the same irrespective of the location where one works. There is nothing absurd or, for that matter, unusual about such expectations. The contraceptive requirement of ACA is but an instance of this common treatment.

        As to the conflict, I would not be so sanguine. The law review article cited (Rienzi, God and Profits) cites approvingly case and tax law that supports the consolidation of corporate power over those of the employee (e.g. the treatment of Chapter S corporations that would blur the separation of business owners and their businesses, p. 42). The observable history of business conduct suggests that frayed threads indeed get pulled, that weaknesses are exploited. Jeffrey Rosen’s article at the New Republic (“These Two Cases….”) provides the substantive counterpoint to the Rienzi article.

        • I don’t know what you mean by “treated the same irrespective of the location where one works,” but if you mean that we all have a right to identical benefits as people in other places of employment…well, that seems odd. Employment is a kind of contract: I am done no injustice if am employed by a place that does not offer me health insurance, for instance. There are many small businesses that do not. Are they denying workers their rights by their failure?

          Which is to say, the principle behind *this mandate* doesn’t seem to be one of worker’s rights or just treatment for workers, unless we want to say that it is a matter of fundamental injustice for employers to not include contraception in their health coverage. But really, that is the claim that seems laughable. But if not a matter of fundamental justice or of equality in a meaningful sense, then there may be very good reasons why this case won’t set the sort of “equal treatment” problems in employment law that people are worried about. As to other medical-related benefits, I really am okay letting the Courts sort those out on a case-by-case basis.

          As to Rosen’s article, it doesn’t seem like it offers a “substantive counterpoint.” He points to the possibility of challenges to other laws and tacks on the assertion that Rienzi’s got the short end of the argument, but there’s not much more to it than that. Which is fine, given the format. But it’s thin on arguments.


  • I have talked to Matt about this before and I think that the potential problems of this as a precedent is a problem for civil society. If an employer can be exempted from employer regulation there are many ways that it could be problematic. For instance if a gay couple that is legally married tried to take off time to care for their spouse through the FMLA can an employer deny the opportunity because they disagree with gay marriage? Can an employer require women to wear a headcovering because of their religious views, or not hire women because they don’t believe that women can work outside of the home? I think there is a line, but I don’t think this is the right place to draw it.

  • Young Evangelical Lawyer

    This case has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility.

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  • Suppose the National Rifle Association, rather than Planned Parenthood, is helping advise the Secretary of HHS in creating regulations for Obamacare. Believing that self-defense saves lives, and that an armed citizenry advances that good, the NRA gets the HHS secretary to require all employers to include in their employee health care plans two free firearms, including free bullets, depending on need. Quaker employers object on the grounds that it would involve them in directly providing instruments of war to their employees, in clear violation of their pacifist beliefs. The Quakers suggest that the government itself can give these weapons directly to the employees without involving the Quaker business owners in the activity. The government, showing no respect or understanding of the rich theological tradition of the Friends, responds by suggesting that the Quakers are anti-self-defense and don’t believe in “saving lives.” In fact, the government says that the Quaker business owners’ resistance to the HHS mandate is equivalent to banning their employees from defending themselves against criminals.

    Everyone with any sense would see the injustice here.

    A couple of corrections to other commentators. First, the HHS mandate is not a law passed by Congress and signed by the President. It is a regulation created by the Secretary of HHS. She is indeed empowered by the ACA to do this, which, of course, should make you shudder when you think that any regulatory agency can have that kind of power. If The secretary of HHS can make Hobby Lobby directly pay for abortifacients, she can make PETA supply beef products for non-vegan employees. Why would anyone want to live in that sort of world? Second, the HHS mandate is not an anti-discrmination statute passed by Congress. So, the “gay couple” analogies are not relevant. (This is, by the way, an odd analogy to make, since “a couple” is a corporate entity, and thus, on the grounds used to reject Hobby Lobby’s claim of corporate rights, should have no rights at all.) Third, if, as one commentator suggests, we live in a religiously pluralistic society and that should require that we tolerate differences, then citizens should be allowed to found business fully integrated with their theological beliefs. The commentator, ironically, seems to be against this, which would mean that he is requiring that all businesses walk lock step with one understanding of the nature of the good life, a view that embraces the licitness of contraception and abortion. But people of good will disagree about these issues, largely on grounds tightly tethered to their theological traditions. If American liberalism cannot account for THIS disagreement–if it can’t actually permit diversity of opinion and practice in the business world over the very moral issues that launched post-1960s liberalism in the first place–then liberalism is one giant ruse, a secular hegemony cleverly disguised as celebrating pluralism.

  • frank n furter

    kiss my ass hater