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.

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(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?

Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others

A few days ago, a couple evangelical bloggers took some time to write on poverty.  I was pretty unsettled by what I read.  After a while, I realized the problem: they were writing jeremiads and rhetorical scoldings, but I couldn’t find any real, specific person who originally warranted such a rebuke.  It was the problem of predication.  Somewhere, some straw man was being beat up, perhaps for the sins of some other person in the past, a ubiquitous person I like to refer to as the “bigoted uncle.”

What is predication? Recall from grammar that some sentences have three parts: an object, a predicate, and a subject.  The object does something to the subject.  For instance, a girl hits a ball, or a pedestrian judges a homeless man.  To hit, to judge, these are predicate acts.  These acts must fall upon some subject, as in the ball or the homeless man.

Who is that strawman? I think it’s Bigoted Uncle!
Photo credit: Bookmart / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Now the first blog I noticed came in response to a list of habits posted on the website of a famous get-out-of-debt ministry.  Blogging on CNN’s website, author Rachel Evans took the list and its purveyor to task.

If you read the original list, there is no explicit causal claim about the behaviors of “the rich” and “the poor.”  Evans writes:

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

But Corley’s list did not explicitly make the causal connection.  As the reader who interpreted the text’s meaning, it was only  Evans who could make that implicit connection.

In something of an indignant response appended to the original list, ministry leader Dave Ramsey may well have affirmed a causal relationship.  Even still, inferring causation from statistical surveys does not amount to passing personal judgment on “the poor.” That is another implication that only the reader can bring out.  And this is what Evans seems to do (emphasis mine):

A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”

The question arises, who exactly called a poor family “lazy and undisciplined” in the first place?  It wasn’t Ramsey or Corley from what I can tell.  Maybe it was bigoted uncle.

Further on, Evans informs us:

And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich.

Who actually had contempt for the poor?  It doesn’t seem to be Ramsey and company.  Again, it could have been bigoted uncle.

A few days after Evans’ post, evangelical writer and HBU provost John Mark Reynolds warned against “poor shaming.”  In the course of the text, we never learn who specifically Reynolds thinks has been shaming the poor in virtue of their being poor.  Recounting the overwhelming external factors that perpetuate poverty, he does opine:

One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.

This kind of biting rhetoric drives me mad.  Who do these writers, a fellow sister and brother in Christ, actually have in mind?  When they lay down their thoughts in writing, each proposition is preceded by an implicit “I think that . . ..”  They are bearing in mind and making judgments either about specific persons or else some useful fiction.  They are predicating many times over, on the rich, the poor, the middle class, Christians, Americans, and so on.

If serious and thoughtful Christians are going to be predicating, let’s be sure we’re doing it with accuracy and precision.  Evans deplores painting with a categorically broad brush, and so do I.  It’s natural to talk in terms of abstractions, as in Wall Street, Main Street, the one percent, the ninety-nine percent, the rich, and the poor.  If it’s bad to judge individuals, why is it any better to predicate uncharitably on some ambiguous social construct that another person may identify as?

“The rich” and “the poor” both might as well be the Hegelian “The Other.”  If your head is spinning after all of this meta-analysis, I’m nearly done.  Now I will be silent for a time, allowing the Other to self-identify and speak for his or herself.

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