If Corporations Are People, They Can Be Martyrs. Right?

Hobby Lobby: The First Martyr Under Obamacare? This is the title of an article by Karen Swallow Prior posted today on Her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s women’s blog. I know there’s a lot more going on here that I should be interested in, but I have to say, what is utterly fascinating to me right now is the assertion that a company can be martyred.

December 26 was a fitting day for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to refuse judicial relief to the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, whose Christian owners object to certain requirements of the Affordable Care Act. On the calendar of Western Christianity, December 26 is St. Stephen’s Day, the day that honors Christendom’s first martyr.

It appears that Hobby Lobby may go to the rack on this one. The company opposes a provision in the health care legislation that requires them to pay for birth control methods that may result in abortion. Following Sotomayor’s decision, Hobby Lobby issued the following statement: “The company will continue to provide health insurance to all qualified employees. To remain true to their faith, it is not their intention, as a company, to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.” And the full penalty of law—experts say Hobby Lobby could be fined to the tune of $1.3 million per day—would be the death knell for the company.

I want to take just a moment to say that I think I understand where Prior is coming from. Really, her argument hearkens back to Christian persecution in Rome in the 300s, when Christians were required to either burn incense to the emperor or die. Since burning the incense involved worshiping the emperor as a God, many Christians refused and were executed. That is what martyrdom is – choosing to die rather than violate or renounce your religion.

Martyr: a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion.

But there is a missing piece in this puzzle: the idea that a corporation – a business – can be a martyr. Conservative Christians have a bit of a persecution complex, and frequently argue that they are being “persecuted” for their beliefs, but it’s not often that they can evoke the label “martyr” with any credibility. Why? Because no one is killing Christians in this country, government or otherwise. Cassie Bernall was hailed as a martyr after her death at Columbine because the shooters had asked whether she believed in God before they shot her, and she answered “yes,” and then met her death, but that’s about as close as Christians can get to actually pointing to martyrdom in this country today. But here, here, Prior is sure she has found an actual martyr – an entity that may face death rather than violate its religious beliefs. There’s just one problem. That entity is not a person.

It seems that Citizens United has changed more than just how campaigns are run. That court ruling argued that corporations had constitutional rights, thus leading to an endless stream of jokes about corporations’ personhood (for example, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” But in the discussion over Obamacare’s birth control mandate, which merely requires health insurance companies to cover birth control, the corporations as people rhetoric has taken on real force. Suddenly, corporations can be martyred. And, so it is argued, they can also have religious beliefs:

“All they’re asking for is a narrow exemption from the law that says they don’t have to provide drugs they believe cause abortions,” Hobby Lobby attorney Kyle Duncan, a general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNN affiliate KFOR in November. “Our basic point is the government can’t put a corporation in the position of choosing between its faith and following the law.”

When we cut below this silly talk of corporations as people entitled to religious freedom, we find that it is actually the religious freedom of the company’s owners that is at issue. But then, of course, you have to leave aside the word martyr – and all the feeling and outrage it evokes! Still, lets turn to the owners’ religious freedom for a moment.

When the Romans were requiring Christians to burn incense to the emperor, worshiping him as a god, their opposition made sense. The Roman government was requiring them to worship another god. That clearly was a violation of their religious beliefs and their religious freedom. However, all that is happening now is that the government is requiring health insurance companies to cover all of the basics of women’s healthcare, including birth control, which happens to be a rather important part of women’s healthcare. And since companies buy health insurance for their employees, the health insurance they buy will now cover birth control. And Hobby Lobby doesn’t like that. What’s at stake is whether Hobby Lobby’s owners are willing to provide their employees with the minimum required of businesses by law or, well, not.

Another interesting thing here is that Hobby Lobby’s lawyers are arguing, it is only the belief, not the reality, that matters. In sum, the lawyer is arguing that what matters is that the company believes that birth control causes abortions, not whether or not it actually does cause abortion.

I think it’s important to bear in mind that there is a difference between holding religious beliefs yourself and acting on them in such a way as to break the law and/or cause others harm. What if I said my religious beliefs required me to never wear clothes – could I get out of any citations for public nudity? No. The law is still the law. I am free to believe that God requires me to spend my life naked, and I am free to go naked as much as I like – so long as that does not infringe on others. What I cannot do is subject that belief on everyone else by, say, walking through town naked or starting a business and requiring employees to be nude. The owners of Hobby Lobby may not like that the law requires them to pay for comprehensive healthcare for their employees, but that’s still the law, and if they were allowed to get out of following it they would be imposing their beliefs on their employees in a very real way. Religious freedom is not a get out of jail free card.

In the end, I think the fact that conservative Christians must argue that corporations are people and that purchasing healthcare for their employees is a violation of their religious beliefs before they can locate a martyr reveals their martyr complex for the smokescreen it is.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

    “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”

    And I’ll believe a corporation can have a religion when I see one in church.

    I can almost respect the owners in this, but not quite. This isn’t just about them being forced to provide something they may not agree with, it’s about their employees–who may or may not agree with them on this–getting something that the law says they are entitled to. Not to mention–they’re being fined $36,500 a year per employee for not complying. How many of their employees don’t make that much to begin with?

    (And dammit they have nice yarn! It’s difficult to find anything besides worsted weight acrylic around here–which I use a lot, but not for everything–especially if I want machine washable. Oh well, if I get desperate there’s always the internet.)

    • Lucreza Borgia

      Many towns have independent yarn shops. Google maps should help you find them!

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        There is one, but a significant chunk of it’s stock seems to be hand-wash-only, which I’m not willing to deal with 99% of the time. I like the place, but it doesn’t fit my needs very well.

      • ButchKitties

        There are all kinds of yarn available on Etsy.

    • Sheena

      Yeah, look for an independent, local yarn shop. Or check out knitpicks’ website. They have a good selection and good prices.

  • Angela

    Um, no. If I’m a pacifist and object to my tax dollars going toward war or militarization does that absolve me from paying them? The law actually does not require businesses to purchase any type of medications at all. It does require that they purchase insurance coverage for eligible employees and prevent employers or insurance companies from restricting women’s reproductive choices.

    • http://www.kisarita.blogspot.com ki sarita

      exactly. health insurance is part of a salary. That’s like them telling me what I can and can not do with my salary that I take home. Perhaps if t hey were jewish or muslim they can forbid me from buying pork? The only difference is that is is channelled through a third party.

    • Niemand

      If I’m a pacifist and object to my tax dollars going toward war or militarization does that absolve me from paying them?

      No. Many pacifists have refused to pay their taxes as a protest against war or militarization. And have gone to prison or had their assets seized for that refusal. They expected this and did not whine about it. That’s what the right doesn’t seem to understand about civil disobedience: Refusing to pay your taxes while explaining why you are refusing and taking the consequences of your actions is civil disobedience. Simply refusing to give your employees adequate health insurance and whining that it’s against your religion is just trying to sleaze out of your obligations. If you believe strongly enough that birth control and/or abortion are bad then refuse to cover them–and be ready to take the consequences of that refusal. If you can’t do that, you’re just a cheat, not a protestor.

  • http://trikepilotadventures.blogspot.com/ trikepilot

    If Hobby Lobby can opt out of birth control covered by insurance because it conflicts with their religious beliefs, then a Scientologist employer can deny psychiatric coverage; a Jehovah Witness can deny blood transfusions; a Mormon can refuse to cover medicine with alcohol in it. Just because you employ a person does not entitle you to make that person’s medical decisions.

    • Rosie

      THIS. Exactly.

    • http:/www.ltmm.org LoveThatMatters.org

      Why not let them opt out?

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        Because they’re not just making the decision for themselves. They’re also making it for every one of their employees, and they have no right to do that.

  • John Small Berries

    What trikepilot said, and I’ll add that if religious beliefs are enough to exempt an employer from following the law, then a Christian Scientist employer could deny all healthcare whatsoever to his or her employees.

    (Of course, a common thought-free response to that being pointed out is “Well, they can just go get another job if they don’t like it”, which is easier said than done at a time when there are approximately 3.4 applicants for every available job.)

    • Judy L.

      I live in a major city centre, and when I was interviewed for a position with an internationally-known Foundation a few yeas ago I was told that I was one of four candidates selected to interview from a pool of 451 applicants.

    • phantomreader42

      The instant a precedent is established that religious beliefs exempt a corporation from following the law, we’ll see mass conversion of corporations to whatever religion is most convenient for evading regulations (christian science’s tendency to openly deny ALL reality without shame would likely be helpful there). And shortly after that the creation of tailor-made corporate cults that exist SOLELY to facilitate lawbreaking. We ALREADY see christians screeching that their faith makes them immune from any law they find inconvenient, so it’s not really a stretch.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    You know, if you give someone a pay check, they could use it to buy guns to kill people, get drunk and beat their wife, a lot of things, but you can’t micromanage people’s lives. Of course, there is *nothing* morally wrong with birth control, but since they believe it is, they still need to understand that its health insurance that some may cash in so to speak for birth control.

    They should be happy — less babies will be aborted with wider spread birth control.

  • Daniel

    Anyone interested in a little reading can read the Supreme Court decision US v. Lee (1982), which said, in essence, “If you want to do something religious in your business for yourself, that’s fine. But once you start imposing your religion on your employees, that is against the law.” In that instance, it was an Amish company refusing to withhold Social Security taxes on their non-Amish employees’ paychecks. The Amish, as a collective, are morally opposed to SS, don’t pay it and don’t collect it.

  • http://thewordsonwhat.wordpress.com/ Rob F

    I might accept that the owners of a company can be offended by what a corporation (a legally separate “person”) does when the owners pierce the corporate veil for everything. This includes giving up any claim of limited liability. (Basically, limited liability means that an investor can only lose what they actually invested. For example, if I invest $100 in a corporation, and the company goes under, creditors can only take the $100 I invested. Contrarywise, if I instead “invest” $100 in a partnership, and the partnership goes under, creditors can take the $100 I invested, and then go after my house, car, etc, until the debt is settled).

  • Christine

    Question: how “real” do people think their objection is? I know that the grounds on which they are objecting is complete bunk – they have neither a legal nor moral right to do this. But are they actually doing this because it matters so much to the owners that they not have any hand in paying for birth control, because they have a (different) moral objection to providing insurance or just to be “in” with this specific Christian sect?

    • Lane

      I read in a comment elsewhere that the owner of Hobby Lobby owns stock in a company that actually makes birth control pills. I haven’t been able to find any verification of this, but I sort of hope it’s true because that would be utterly hilarious, in the most horribly hypocritical way…

  • LeftSidePositive

    By they way (and I know this is off topic), but you might want to clarify the wording on the bit about Cassie Bernall–it was initially believed she said “yes,” but subsequent eyewitness testimony identified another person who actually said that (the survivor who recounted it wasn’t sure where he heard the conversation)–Valeen Schnurr actually said that she believed in God (and, incidentally, survived), while the person who was right next to Cassie said that she was not asked anything nor did she say anything before she was shot. However, the Christian Right insists on perpetuating the myth of her martyrdom even though it is simply factually inaccurate.

    • Rosie

      I wondered if it counted as martyrdom if the shooter would kill her anyhow, regardless of the answer. Because it didn’t seem to me that those killers really cared what their victims believed or didn’t believe.

    • Elizabeth

      I was looking through the comments to see if anyone mentioned this. The book Columbine, IIRC, shows that there is very little evidence for the Cassie Bernall martyrdom story.

  • Ken

    Unlike the unborn, corporations are persons under the law.

    • Carys Birch

      Indeed, we’re 1 for 2 on correct identification of things that aren’t persons.

  • smrnda

    You aren’t the first person to point out that Hobby Lobby’s ‘belief’ that these medications cause abortion are false, but like good Christians, they seem to expect their beliefs to be respected, even when they’re factually false.

    Seriously, a FOR PROFIT, Mammon worshiping money grubbing corporation is a martyr? Is this the union of Ayn Rand and conservative Christianity at its most absurd or what?

  • Anat

    Has any corporation claimed second amendment rights yet? Are rival companies going to duke it out?

  • Thomas

    I wonder if there are any Jehovah’s Witness employers that are tussling with this sort of thing too, since they’re not into blood transfusions.

  • Chrissy

    The height of irony is that the main reason I’ve stopped shopping at Hobby Lobby is the *exact same reason* my parents & siblings turned out en masse on “Hobby Lobby Appreciation Day”. The kiddos were so excited to show me their new treasures! I felt enraged at my parents. What are they telling these kids? I can hear it now- “Hobby Lobby doesn’t want babies to die and the government says they have to help pay for women killing babies, so we hate the government and love Hobby Lobby.” UGH I am so glad I got out of that mess, but I feel so anxious for my siblings left at home. There’s nothing I can do- anything I say to them gets reported back to my parents and would affect my tenuous relationship with them. So I bite my lip, and rant to my older sister (who also got out) and my husband.

  • Alexis

    Tommy Smothers once said about another cause “…many have died…and some have even given their money!”

  • Jenn_smithson

    I worked for Hobby Lobby in the late 90′s. The owners are only so “Christian” as their bottom line tells them to be. Back in the day, most stores were open on Sundays. You’d think we would have done significant business on Sundays but we didn’t. When you consider the size of the stores, cost of electricity, heating/cooling, and cost of staffing compared to the paltry sales we managed on Sundays, it was no surprise when they made the decision to close the stores on Sundays. They told the media that it was to allow workers to have a day off with family and to worship but that was white washing a purely economic decision.

    In the store I worked, everyone but the manager, assistant manager, and bookkeeper were part-time even when you asked for more hours, even when you actually worked full time hours. Back then, only full time employees were offered health insurance. So I’m surprised these folks are fighting the health insurance to begin with because most of their employees are kept from receiving company health coverage because they’re “part time.”. Those who do get health coverage, the majority don’t need birth control because they are men (3 stored I worked for over 4 years, no women were in full time, benefit earning positions).

    Whatever the real decision, I can gaurantee it has everything to do with the company bottom line in some way or they fear it might in the future instead of whatever their brand of faith tells them to do.