Do corporations have a right to free religious exercise?

Do for-profit corporations have a right to free religious exercise? A very interesting exchange took place last week at the law blog called Volokh Conspiracy. Responding to co-blogger David Post, atheist law scholar Ilya Somin argued that corporations can meaningfully exercise religion:

The idea that people can exercise religion through publicly traded corporations is regarded as absurd by many other critics of Hobby Lobby, as well. But a little reflection suggests that it is not absurd at all. As David recognizes, publicly traded corporations can engage in the exercise of free speech and many other constitutional rights. If the majority of stockholders decide that a corporation should publicize speech on political or moral issues, then the corporation will engage in such speech on their behalf. Similarly, stockholders can use corporations to adhere to a variety of secular moral principles. Some corporations boycotted apartheid South Africa because of the stockholders’ moral abhorrence of racism. If people can and do use publicly traded corporations to speak out on political issues or adhere to secular moral principles, then the same goes for religious principles. For example, the majority stockholders of a firm may choose to adhere to Orthodox Jewish religious law, and therefore refuse to do business on the sabbath.

If secular folks can muster moral indignation and make it part of their corporate practice, why can’t religious people? Somin–recall that he identifies himself as an atheist–goes on to affirm that religious exercise can be regarded as a public act:

David seems to draw a distinction between speech (which he recognizes can be exercised through a corporation), and religion (which he thinks cannot be), because speech is “an inherently public act,” while religion is not. I think that takes too narrow a view of religion. For many religious people, their faith is not just a purely private hobby. It is rather a set of moral principles that infuses every aspect of their lives, including their activities in the commercial world. If atheists like me can use publicly traded corporations to pursue secular moral principles, it is not difficult to see how religious people can do the exact same thing with their own beliefs.

Somin’s reasoning is clear, and his charity in discourse is exemplary.

The distinction really does seem to come down to whether one thinks religious acts are just done by people for the fun of it, or whether the religious person considers those acts to be as weighty as secular acts that come before the public courts. The former seems inconsiderate; the latter seems impossible to deny. There may be good reasons to disqualify a corporation’s line of reasoning for action, but merely attaching an eight letter word to it–”religion”–is not enough, and in itself is tantamount to irrational anti-religious discrimination.

If corporations can have the right undertake moral campaigns like divestment, boycotts, or make charitable contributions to non-profit organizations, then it should follow that corporations have the right to religious expression.

Christian privilege. Really?

Is there such a thing as Christian privilege? A blogger at Christianity Today thought the idea worth bringing to his reader’s attention. He links to a list of 30+ privileges that suggests, if you identify as Christian, “there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about these things.” How annoying to presume this of the reader.

Anyway, a quick perusal of the list will reveal just how surreal and absurd the idea of Christian privilege is. Here are three I find worth commenting on:

1. You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.

2. Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.

11. Positive references to your faith are seen dozens of times a day by everyone, regardless of their faith.

As for taking days off, what planet does the list author live on? California, where more than ten percent of Americans live, does not grant a holiday for Easter. Millions of Christians travel to be with family Easter Sunday, and then must hurry back for school or work on Monday. But the state does grant a holiday in proximity to Easter, in honor of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. Once every few years, the Christian church calendar may coincide with this progressive holy day, granting accidental reprieve to resurrection pilgrims.


torbakhopper / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As for music and television, here’s an important public service announcement: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer are not profound treasuries of Christian worship or doctrine. Serious Christians have to search as hard as others to find music, videos, and text that substantially facilitate holiday observance. Possibly, this Christian privilege list copies Peggy McIntosh’s white privilege list, which is essentially pre-Internet. Now, with webpages, YouTube, and streaming music services, a Hindu, a Jew, and an Atheist can walk into a bar and check their smartphones to find whatever suits their worship needs with equal ease.

As for daily affirmations, turning on a television might land you randomly on Family Guy, Modern Family, Bill Maher, Niel DeGrasse Tyson, or–until recently–Piers Morgan mangling a cartoonish conception of Christian belief, history, or practice. Websites like Upworthy, the Atlantic and Yahoo News extend the misrepresentation and stereotypes to the internet.

But let’s suppose that Christian privilege exists. Is it good to propagate a list enumerating those privileges? No, it is filled with generalizations that are liable to cultivate prejudiced stereotypes among most social media readers who read it. Perhaps there is a noble purpose in arousing empathy in certain readers, but essentializing an “other” identity with a list of pilfered factoids seems to contribute nothing to this end. Worse, privilege lists quite possibly aggravate interpersonal comparisons, building envy and escalating already existing feelings of grievance.

Maybe you find expositions on privilege refreshing and needed. If so, I’d love to hear from you. But the next time you come across a list or guide to privilege, I hope you will consider carefully before pressing the “share” button.

(In)tolerance at Mozilla

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

-The Friends of Voltaire (1906)

Tolerance in the face of disagreement, even incredibly odious disagreement, has been a hallmark of American civil discourse. The idea as we know it today crystallized with Voltaire, although Jacques Barzun informs us that it was the English Puritans who first gave it to us.

Today, it seems tolerance is gone. I was watching this Red Eye clip just yesterday, where Reason‘s chief editor Nick Gillespie was marveling that, in America’s post-scarcity economy, consumers can afford to make political statements by boycott. This in response to news that dating website OK Cupid blocked Mozilla Firefox users from its service because Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich gave a $1,000 political donation to California’s Proposition 8. That was the overturned state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gillespie was right; boycotts are a luxury of those fortunate enough to be able to choose how to spend their money and time. They are a possible solution to the first-world problem of having to live with someone who makes you uncomfortable by virtue of their seeing the world differently from you. Some progressives seem to be very good at wielding this blunt, destructive, stigmatizing tool of social ostracization and economic isolation. Recall the Oregon bakers whose painstakingly-built business was shuttered by boycott and intimidation in 2013.

On Thursday, after just a few days of pressure, Mr. Eich stepped down because some of his employees simply did not like how he spent his own money. They did not like his political speech, so they cut short his career. He happened to be a Mozilla co-founder. Oh, and he only invented javascript. That kind of tearing down of someone who makes things for a living, transforms the way we live our lives, but just happens to see things differently from you, that’s what I call progress.

It would seem an apology is in order to Mr. Eich, but as it turns out, the apology went the other way around. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a blog post Thursday, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman, Mitchell Baker, apologized for Mr. Eich’s appointment, writing, “We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public…But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.”

Amazing. Baker’s apology was not for Mozilla’s being intolerant of Eich’s views, but for his alleged intolerance to the company. On what evidence? Now that he’s gone, everyone can feel safe “to share their beliefs and opinions in public.” Orwellian. Chilling.

Maybe Mr. Eich was hateful. I don’t know. How does one determine that? According to the Journal, he made conciliatory moves. But even if he were a hateful, smoldering homophobic imp, I will have to make the point as I have a few times before by asking, why think that it is inherently immoral, blameworthy, or hateful for government to restrict the kinds of relationships it recognizes?

 

Equal protection? Piece of cake!

Sugar Daze / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The week after Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s vetoed “anti-gay” bill SB 1062, The Atlantic ran this headline on its story feed: “How Religious-Freedom Laws Could Come Back to Hurt the Faithful.” Jonathan Merritt lays out a hypothetical turning of tables, where a Unitarian refuses service to a Baptist. Then he asks:

Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions? Because if not, they better think long and hard about advocating for laws that allow public businesses to refuse goods and services to individuals anytime they believe the person’s behavior conflicts with their sincerely held convictions.

The moral lesson seems simple and airtight:

If you are able to discriminate against others on the basis of religious conviction, others must be allowed to do the same when you are on the other side of the counter.

But was the bill really about legally enshrining anti-gay discrimination? The actual text makes no reference to sexual orientation. Read the bill, it’s short. Neither does it say anything about discriminating against a customer on the basis of the customer’s religious belief.

It is very easy to imagine a criterion where a business owner may refuse service: when the requested service violates her conscience. This can happen when an artist is forced to render service to an event she personally finds unconscionable. Maybe she is a florist, photographer, or baker; these people have already been sued and boycotted for refusal of service.

Consider if a caterer, who is a strict vegan by conviction, were forced to serve meat to carnivores. That would be a clear violation of conscience, unjustified and wrong. Some would argue that she should not be in the catering business in the first place, but that’s illiberal and hard-hearted.

However, if the caterer were forced to provide a vegan meal to carnivores, that would pass muster according to the correct understanding of equal protection.

Refusal of service based on an immutable trait of the customer is one thing. But refusal of service based on the impact the service would have on the producer is one possible rational basis for the right to refuse service.

Why hasn’t the mainstream media picked up on this?

Henry Ford wage hike: boon or bust?

A Rube Goldberg machine may be more efficient than a Henry Ford wage hike. | Profound Whatever / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

One hundred years ago, Henry Ford defied his fellow capitalists by doubling his workers’ wages.  It was a profitable boon, enabling his employees to finally afford the product they produced, the automobile.  Daniel Gross at the Daily Beast suggests that employees today should emulate Ford’s wage hike.  Is this a sound recommendation?

“All else being equal”–ceteris paribus–is an indispensable caveat to all economic theories.  A little scrutiny reveals that nothing is equal in comparing Henry Ford to employers today.

Gross literally describes Ford as a “dictator.”  He’s right.  Back then, Ford answered to a few private investors, but major employers today are accountable to open market shareholders.  Ford Motor Company eventually went public in 1956, and it was a good thing, too.  Market accountability makes the difference between CEO-approved assembly lines and Politburo-inflicted bread lines.

Differing labor market conditions also advise against a Ford-like wage increase.  Turnover and its associated costs were higher in 1914.  HR departments have learned a lot since then.  Significant overhead savings have already been captured, unlike in Ford’s pioneering days.  High turnover remains the norm for low-value added jobs like fast food service.  Still, crack open the Wall street Journal, which Gross dismisses as “revanchist,” and one will learn that employers are far from uninterested in improving work conditions.  Think of Google’s work site barbershop and sleep pods.

Not only do market conditions make the Ford wage hike inadvisable, but its accomplishments are oversold with a rhetorical sleight of hand.  Gross credits Ford with achieving an economy of scale, enabling the first “democratic car.”  But prior to the wage hike, the company was already moving 250, 000 cars a year, hardly an elite clientele.

Missing from the heart of Gross’ s case are findings that Ford’s own employees significantly broadened the consumer base.  It may as well have been an exogenous factor; perhaps instead it was World War I that boosted demand and decisively convinced Americans of the automobile’s utility.

In debunking an earlier incarnation of the Ford myth, Forbes writer Tim Worstoll notes another major deficiency.  Take Boeing, another durable goods manufacturer.  Paying a worker more there will not enable her to buy her own 777 airliner to enjoy on the weekend.

The Ford hike is a shot in the dark, an indirect Rube Goldberg way to increase demand.  Not to mention a blunt instrument.  Employers have more precise methods for such ends, like commercial advertising.  Some loathe ads as vacuous and soul crushing, but they increase demand by raising the value of the product in the mind of the consumer.  And the ad industry employs many thousands.

Other ways of increasing consumption include the tried and true coupon, the sales discount, and the rebate.  These only induce voluntary transactions.  Even if government wanted to raise consumption on a macro level, these inducements are much more equitable than the job killing minimum wage increase, which 85% of economists opposed in one recent survey (h/t Wintery Knight).

So it seems there’s no substance to recommend Ford’s wage hike.  What is Gross accomplishing with this piece, then?  He paints a straw man of inexplicably stubborn industrialists, saying that “. . . bosses have been choosing not to raise wages even when they can.”  If Henry Ford saw what employers are doing now, he’d be “shocked and dismayed.”

The straw man ultimately issues from a pervasive, unnamed menace:

There’s something deep in our contemporary and political culture, in the public and private sectors, that supports the proposition that employers should pay as little as possible at all times, at every point in the economic cycle.

He doesn’t say it, but he may be alluding to the misleading Keynesian bogeyman known unflatteringly as “trickle down economics.”

Employers are diverse and face many different circumstances.  Rather than acting as some monolithic cabal, each pays what their market and their bottom line allows.  Second-guessing employers is bad policy, and shaming market competitors into “doing their part” is harmful politics.

Certainly, there are often times when workers should get raises.  And cost of living adjustments are a good way to make sure that a rising tide keeps lifting all boats.  But the Henry Ford wage hike is more like income redistribution agitprop than good business advice.

Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8″ painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Study: journalists report think tank leanings selectively

Conservative-leaning think tanks like the Hoover Institution are much more likely to be ideologically identified than their liberal counterparts. | Photo credit: darkmatter / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

 

Reason.com recently highlighted a study in the Journal of Media Economics which suggests selective media bias in reporting think tank leanings:

Leading news outlets were 14 times more likely to identify the Heritage Foundation as conservative than they were to categorize the Brookings Institution as liberal, reports a new study in the Journal of Media Economics. The study, conducted by the Department of Justice economist Wayne Dunham, analyzed 25,000 news articles from six large daily newspapers and the Associated Press over the past couple of decades.

Reason correspondent Ronald Bailey points out the implicit bias in this lopsided ideological identification.  It seems reasonable to me that reminding readers of a source’s ideological affiliation tends to make them dismissive of that source.  It follows then that liberal think tanks get less scrutiny than conservative and libertarian ones.

Free societies rely on some semblance of balance and objectivity from the press. It won’t help for government to intervene, as with the Fairness Doctrine.  Rather, news consumers should signal their displeasure to the editorial boards.  To that end, it would be good to know which major papers Dunham examined.  If the report is accurate, then some of America’s most influential journalists need to explain, or else cop to, their own bias.

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