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Basu: Do corporations have religous rights?

Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver

Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver on May 22, 2013. Photo Credit: AP

"Corporations are people, my friend," presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously declared during an Iowa State Fair visit in 2011 after a heckler challenged him to support raising corporate taxes. "Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."

That suggestion of corporate benevolence flowing to the masses rather than corporate profits (sometimes enhanced by plant shutdowns, relocations and layoffs) flowing to the shareholders was bound to become the butt of jokes. But if the image of a corporation having facial features was stretching it, imagine a corporation praying. That's what a challenge to the Affordable Care Act now before the U.S. Supreme Court forces us to do.

The court has agreed to consider two cases against the mandate that employers of more than 50 people include contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance plans. The premise of the argument made by the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood specialty stores is that their corporations have religious beliefs that are violated by certain types of birth control, which they equate with abortion.

The high court got the case after one federal appeals court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby but another one ruled against Conestoga Wood. The Affordable Care Act already exempts churches and certain nonprofit religious groups from the birth control mandate. But the Obama administration has refused to exempt corporations.

The idea that a business entity that exists in incorporation papers, to make money, could have feelings and be offended is part of the unfortunate legacy of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It said the government couldn't restrict independent political ads placed by corporations, because corporations have the same First Amendment free speech that people do.

Now the court will have to decide if they also have religious rights.

We're talking about businesses that weren't created to advance a religious agenda -- businesses that sell and/or make products (craft supplies, cabinet doors and components) that have nothing to do with religion. Their hiring policies have to comply with civil rights laws and not exclude people on the basis of their race, religion, gender or other immutable characteristics. Yet these owners seek indirectly to impose their own religious beliefs on their employees by dictating which legal family planning methods they can use. That would be the practical impact of withholding insurance coverage for certain types.

That's none of an employer's business.

"For the first time ever, the court could decide that corporations have the right to opt out of a legal requirement - based entirely on the personal beliefs of their owners," declared Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

And anyway, a corporation's value is created by the people who work for it. If it's going to assume a set of values, wouldn't those be the ones of its employees rather than owners?

The president's foes, along with some talk-show hosts and interest groups, will fight the Affordable Care Act any way they can, so we can expect to see more such battles both before and after it's finally up and fully running. (And it must be said, the administration has done itself no favors by fumbling the particulars so badly right out of the gate.) A Religious Freedom Restoration Act , introduced in Congress last year, would exempt "religious employers" from the mandate, defining those to include religious charities, hospitals, schools and businesses.

Business owners are free to not use certain types of birth control themselves. But the mandate is a much-needed provision for employees who do. The expense is one which women disproportionately are saddled with. Even in our divided nation, we share an interest in seeing fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions. And from a company's bottom-line perspective, it would spend a lot more covering the costs associated with births due to unplanned pregnancies rather than covering birth control.

Given the court's previous rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act as well as declaring corporate personhood, it's hard to anticipate which way it will rule on this. But until a corporation can pray, chant, meditate, genuflect or say "Peace be with you," it can't be said to have religious sensibilities to offend.

Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.