by Jack Hornickel
This post is not intended to poke fun at any faith particularly or religion generally. Rather, it is meant to examine the possible implications of the Supreme Court’s policy of corporate personhood for laws meant to protect and inform consumers.
On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., one of its most controversial cases this term. In an ideological 5-4 split, the Court ruled that closely-held, for-profit corporations operating on sincere religious principles are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) from laws of general applicability that burden the exercise of religion. Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain, objected primarily to the contraceptive mandate promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services, pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.
The dissenting justices, however, argued that the Court’s decision would open the door for corporations to remove certain medical practices from their healthcare plans, such as vaccinations, blood transfusions, and antidepressants, on the grounds of corporate religious liberty. But what effect, if any, could the Hobby Lobby ruling have on the laws governing food producers?
During oral argument, Justice Alito posed an apt hypothetical: if Congress outlawed certain slaughtering techniques as inhumane, could kosher or halal butchers assert a religious exemption? (Nevermind momentarily that ritual slaughter is already explicitly exempt from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.) Answering his own question, Justice Alito’s opinion in Hobby Lobby would allow Jewish and Muslim butchers to opt out of such a law, so long as they were closely-held for-profit companies operating on sincere religious principles.
This leads me to wonder: could food purveyors bring challenges to other types of food laws based on the recent ruling? For example, the FDA protects consumers from misbranded foods by enforcing accurate labeling. Imagine now a company that produces wines and breads for Catholic communion (closely-held, for-profit, sincerely religious) that wishes to remind purchasers of the sacred mystery of transubstantiation by printing “Contains the Body and Blood of Christ” on its products. When the FDA takes enforcement action, could the corporation successfully sue under RFRA for burdening its exercise of religion? Likewise, the Church of Scientology utilizes a detoxification program that aims to promote spiritual wellness, relying on a routine of exercise, sweating, and vitamins. Could a company advertise the cocktail of vitamins as “Guaranteed to Heal Your Spirit” with impunity?
The possibilities are admittedly farfetched, but worth considering:
-Could a Muslim-owned business deny its employees their 60 minutes of mealtime during the month of Ramadan, contrary to state labor laws?
-Could producers of kosher beef, which must chew cud, challenge the Farm Bill provisions that favor corn-fed cattle?
-Could Rastafarians observing strict Ital challenge FDA regulations that do not require explicit labeling of hevery food additive?
In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, the conflict of food law and religion may one day reach the courts. Because RFRA covers “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief,” the cry of corporate religious freedom can be extended as far as any company wants to take it, so long as the belief is sincere. The Court assures in its opinion that federal courts are capable of “weed[ing] out” insincere religious beliefs. Only time will tell.