A new federal court ruling represents an ominous legal trend: Religious freedom is morphing into religious power.
"Can a corporation exercise religion?" federal district court judge John L. Kane recently asked. He answered his own question with a provisional yes. In Newland v Sebelius, the court granted a commercial enterprise a temporary injunction exempting it, for now, from providing female employees with coverage for contraception and sterilization required by the Affordable Care Act.
Hercules Industries, a private corporation, manufactures and distributes ventilation systems, but this secular business is owned and operated by a Catholic family, which "seek(s) to run Hercules in a manner that reflects their sincerely held religious beliefs." Its recently amended rules of incorporation state that the company is to be guided by appropriate religious, ethical, or moral standards and that the board of directors may "prioritize" those standards over profitability. Following the teachings of the Catholic Church, Hercules does not offer the ACA's required coverage for reproductive health care.
The law exempts religious employers from these requirements, and the Obama administration has offered compromises to Church-affiliated non-profits (compromises that have been the subject of intense controversy and litigation). But the Newland case seeking and at least temporarily securing exemptions from a generally applicable federal law for an entirely secular enterprise is a new frontier.