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A Hobson's choice: Religious freedom in the business world

By Hannah Smith

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The owners of Hobby Lobby and a sister company, Mardel Inc., a Christian bookstore, sued the government in September, claiming the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide certain emergency contraceptives violates their Christian beliefs.

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A household name kicked an old habit for moral reasons last month: CVS Pharmacy announced it would stop selling tobacco. Other companies taking moral positions that infuse their business include Whole Foods Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill, which sell food grown or raised to high standards of environmental and animal welfare. Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Disney cut the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables and eliminated junk-food ads to curb childhood obesity. Dunkin’ Donuts recycles its foam cups and funds research for a non-foam cup alternative to reduce its carbon footprint. TOMS Shoes donates a pair of new shoes to a needy child for every pair it sells. Newman’s Own gives all its profits to charity. These decisions reflect a growing American trend of corporate social responsibility, where profit-making businesses make some decisions apart from — and often contrary to — their bottom-line financial interests, based on moral or philosophical values.

The White House heaped praise on CVS’s decision as a “powerful example” for corporate America. But when an arts-and-crafts chain, Hobby Lobby, and a Christian bookstore chain, Mardel, decided to exclude from their employee health insurance plans drugs and devices that can end human life after conception because of religious values, the White House responded very differently. It has fought them all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, on March 25th, the government will demand that the Court force the religiously based Hobby Lobby and Mardel to accept the Administration’s preference to include insurance coverage for such drugs and devices in their health plans with no regard for the deeply held religious beliefs that motivate the businesses’ very existence. Outside the courtroom, the government lauds companies for making morally motivated decisions to preserve natural resources and extinguish tobacco use. Inside the courtroom, the government fights a company’s morally motivated policy to preserve human life. The government argues that, because Hobby Lobby and Mardel are corporations, they are legally unable to make religiously motivated decisions, and therefore are not protected by a federal statute — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — that otherwise would require government to accommodate the religious companies.

Why these opposite responses by the government to decisions by for-profit companies based on moral, philosophical, or religious priorities? The government praises one corporate decision, but litigates to reverse another. The government cannot have it both ways. Either a business can consciously make a decision for moral reasons or it cannot. When the White House praises CVS for placing moral motives ahead of financial ones — reportedly a top CVS executive had lost a relative to tobacco-related disease and decided to do something about it — the government is admitting that companies can make moral decisions that reflect the values of their stakeholders.

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