Corporate Personhood = Religious Freedom?

In the United States, the right to religious liberty is protected from the government by the First Amendment by two clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]”

But who has the right to religious freedom? That is the war of interpretation that is being waged by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) along with a large segment of the Catholic healthcare industry against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which recently issued a decision to require comprehensive preventive healthcare for all women and girls by employers and health care providers. This comprehensive healthcare includes procedures covering all forms of birth control, emergency contraception, sterilization (such as tubal ligation), and the care and counseling that are needed with such services.

The USCCB took out a full page ad in The Washington Post on Wednesday, December 21, that proclaimed “Protect conscience rights.” The ad included the statement that “We, the undersigned, strongly support access to life-affirming health care for all[.]”  The ad continues, “[the HHS] rule will force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services either to violate their conscience or severely curtail those services. This would harm both religious freedom and access to health care.” Finally, “[the rule] also harms society as a whole by undermining a long American tradition of respect for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In a pluralistic society, our health care system should respect the religious and ethical convictions of all.” The ad then lists dozens of names of those who lead Catholic hospitals, colleges, and other organizations.

The wording in this ad should give pause to anyone who believes that religious liberty belongs to the individual—and not to an organization, church, charity, or hospital. And here is why.

Each of these entities—the church, the charity, and the hospital—are corporations under law, either for- or non-profit. They are created by collections of people. This is why corporations have CONSITUTIONAL rights already, such as freedom of speech (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010)). In fact, corporations have corporate personhood—which provides them many rights as individuals. A corporation can be sued like an individual, but as we all know most corporations have resources that outstrip the average individual.

When it comes to religious liberty, is it so farfetched that the individual right of religious liberty belongs to religious organizations and corporations? The wording in the USCCB ad seems to suggest this when it states the HHS rule will “force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services … to violate their conscience[.]”  How easy would it be to assert that Catholic and other faith-based organizations must be given exceptions to laws because of their religious beliefs—else their collective religious freedom is being impinged on?

Here is the problem with that argument. If the government is providing taxpayer dollars to ANY organization—religious-based or not—that organization has an obligation to fulfill the full contract of services—whatever the government has required. If the organization cannot—or will not—fulfill the contract, no matter the reason, then the organization should not be accepting government funds. And the government must not accept bids for such contracts.

The individual who pays his or her taxes, who is a citizen, who has the right to the benefits of the healthcare regulations established by the government must be able to go to any healthcare facility that accepts any government funding and receive the full range of services and benefits—no exceptions.

It is the right of the individual to decide what healthcare services are or are not appropriate for his or herself. That right is severely restricted and harmed by any organization or corporation that predetermines what healthcare options are off-limits to an individual before he or she walks into, wheels into, or arrives by ambulance to a healthcare facility.

If the people who run Catholic organizations and hospitals feel so strongly that they cannot provide specific healthcare options to people who may or may not be Catholic and who may or may not share their religious beliefs, they should stop accepting government funds.

What would this mean? At least 20 percent of this country’s healthcare industry is run by Catholic corporations and organizations—and they all accept some kind of government assistance in the form of taxpayer funding. So the corporations and organizations would have to find private funds or close. The Catholic church has used this tactic to try to affect law before—a kind of blackmail: change the law to accommodate our religious beliefs or we, the Catholic church, will stop providing social or medical services.

The implication is that those the Catholic church, Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, and other Catholic organizations help—with taxpayer funds—will now suffer: homeless shelters will close, children in foster care will have no homes, and healthcare facilities will refuse treatment or close altogether. However blackmail only works if the victim has something to lose. The Catholic church has been using this tactic now for at least the past two years. And to their credit, local and state governments and the American people have shown this tactic is powerless.

For example, in 2010, when the District of Columbia passed its marriage equality law, the Catholic Diocese threatened to terminate all Catholic social services in the city. The Diocese backed down from that threat—it receives millions of dollars in district and federal taxpayer dollars to provide social services. Instead, the Diocese terminated its foster care program. The city quickly found homes for the children with secular organizations.

A similar situation on a much larger and sadder scale occurred this year in Illinois with the passage of that state’s civil union bill. Catholic Charities of Illinois ended all foster care services in the state rather than comply with state law to accept same-sex adoptive parents. Secular foster care services were either expanded or created to take care of all of the children.

The USCCB ad says that by restricting Catholic organizations and corporations with this rule, access to healthcare will become limited. However, if Catholic organizations and corporations will not provide the services mandated by law, they must forfeit taxpayer funding. This may well break the Catholic funding juggernaut that has stymied secular and even faith-based groups that wish to provide social services but have been unable to due to the lock that Catholic organizations have on federal and state taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps in the short term healthcare options and services may be limited, but under Catholic corporations and organizations they already are automatically due to Catholic dogma. But just like with the foster care providers, once the federal and state taxpayer dollars are available to secular and faith-based organizations that do not restrict services based on the religious beliefs of the people running them, the healthcare access and the overall healthcare system in this country would improve—especially for women and girls.

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