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

If Corporations Are People, They Can Be Martyrs. Right? January 7, 2013

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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