Rick Warren, pastor and best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life, recently published a Washington Post op-ed supporting the Hobby Lobby company’s claim that they should not have to comply with provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring that employee health plans include contraceptive coverage. Warren testifies to the wonderfulness of David and Barbara Green, and I do not doubt his testimony. I do doubt that he knows what he is talking about when he asserts that “Hobby Lobby is not a secular, publicly-traded company. Rather, it is the personal, purpose-driven mission of one of the most devout families I’ve ever met.” Warren is correct that Hobby Lobby is not publicly traded, but it is most definitely a secular company in that Hobby Lobby, like all corporations, is brought into being, chartered that is, by Caesar, with the state-granted privilege of limited liability. If the Greens want to do business as individuals, with full accountability to both God and their fellow human beings, no one is forcing them to incorporate, let alone distance themselves further with a trustee ownership structure, which they did. But if David and Barbara Green, or the Hobby Lobby corporation they founded, wants the privileges of incorporation–especially limited liability–they are on shaky ground complaining about the burdens on their personal consciences caused by generally applicable public laws. Obamacare does not force them to use birth control, let alone abortion-inducing drugs, themselves. No one is forcing their employees to use birth control. The law does not compel them to provide any health care plan whatsoever, though it may fine them for that, so as to spread the social costs of irresponsible corporate behavior.
Warren asks, “do Americans have the freedom to place our beliefs and ethics at the center of our business practices–or must we ignore them when we form a company?” Seductive rhetoric, but Warren’s dramatic either/or is at odds with the reality of corporation law. “We” do not form a company all by ourselves, “we” and our state (and, at least implicitly, federal) government have to come to terms before incorporation occurs. So we have considerable latitude, or freedom, to act according to our beliefs and ethics, but that latitude may be limited by laws. If the laws transgress against our consciences, we have the option of dissolving the corporate structure and going back to the land, or wherever “we” came from.
Warren claims that the Greens “live their religious values and ethics in every aspect of their business…by their commitment to helping employees maintain a healthy work-life balance, which includes closing on Sundays so workers have more time with their families.” I wonder if the workers have not just the “positive liberty” (see Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay “Two Types of Liberty”) to fulfill their truest selves by spending Sundays with their families, but also the “negative liberty” Americans prize so much. If Hobby Lobby’s workers have the “leave me alone” negative liberty we Americans love, might they spend their Sundays with boyfriends and mistresses, ignoring their families completely, even employing birth control, and in general amusing themselves to death? Whose freedom and what vision of freedom is at stake in this case?