Praying for benefits: A US Supreme Court ruling allows closely held companies to impose their religious values on staff, potentially impacting health cover and working hours.

Praying for benefits: A US Supreme Court ruling allows closely held companies to impose their religious values on staff, potentially impacting health cover and working hours. Photo: iStock

How much do you really know about your employer?

You probably know whether the company is publicly listed, or private. But do you know if it's considered closely held, for example, owned by a family or a very small group of people?

Until this week, I didn't realize that a for-profit corporation could impose its religious values by deciding which federally required benefits I receive - such as health insurance or a retirement plan, or the hours of my working week. Until now, it never occurred to me to worry about my employer's religion.

Now we might all have to - at least in the US.

The US Supreme Court for the first time on Monday granted for-profit, closely held companies the right to religious protections that up until now belonged solely to people and religious institutions.

''Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law,'' Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 5-4 conservative majority.

Alito has cracked open the door for a private company to file a lawsuit that asserts its religious beliefs prevent it from supplying any form of health insurance or retirement plan. Or maybe the company will conclude the 40-hour workweek is immoral because it promotes sloth, the third cardinal sin.

Those are extreme cases, but those are the kinds of things that Supreme Court decisions are supposed to allow for.

This all started with Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, and two other companies owned by deeply religious families, opposing a requirement that the companies' health plans provide some kinds of birth control. Alito and the majority agreed that the corporation's freedom to practice religion trumped the woman's right under the US Affordable Care Act to free birth control.

Much of the outrage over the decision has rightfully focused on women's rights. And the idea that a corporation's religious freedom trumps a woman's right to fair and equal treatment under the law is astonishing. But there are other possible repercussions we all should worry about.

''The majority's holding that closely held corporations can claim religious liberty protections designed for individuals and can rely on those protections to avoid complying with generally applicable laws is a dangerous and radical departure from existing law that creates far more questions than it answers,'' Shannon Minte, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement.

Limits of ruling

Defenders of the decision will quickly argue that Alito wrote the opinion very narrowly and the United States won't start down this slippery slope where companies can claim religious exemptions to routine laws. And it's true that Alito tried to do that by limiting which companies can claim religious protections.

''The decision is limited because it only covers closely held corporations whose owners have strong religious beliefs,'' said Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who handles constitutional cases. ''There are some exceptions, but most people who work at the IBMs of the world won't be affected.''

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worried about how judges will determine which corporations have sincere religious beliefs and how far they may assert them.

''Would the exemption ... extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations?,'' she wrote. ''The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.''

So what's a worker to do? An employer may not ask about your religion during an interview, but can you ask about the company's views?

''I don't know of any law that penalizes what an applicant can ask in a job interview. Now the law of common sense - that's a different story,'' Siegel said.

Testing the boundaries

The Hobby Lobby case could also encourage activist lawyers to try to extend the religious protections beyond the Affordable Care Act. Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback warned against underestimating an attorney's creativity, or a judge's willingness to go there.

''It looks like the drafters of the majority were mindful of the fact that lawyers would try to extend this ruling within the confines of the ACA,'' he told me. ''I didn't get the impression the drafters considered ... how would it apply to other acts?''

When Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, he only said the federal government cannot get into the business of deciding whose marriages are legal. Yet the case is the first one cited by every federal judge who has rejected bans on same-sex marriages across the country.

Door opens wide

Any federal law or regulation that a religious chief executive thinks might infringe on his or her religious beliefs is now open to a lawsuit in the US, and only more trips to the Supreme Court will determine how far this case will go.

All of this litigation, though, only reflects a larger division within the world's largest economy between the religious and the non-religious. Dozens of studies show that we're not only spending Sunday mornings apart, we're living in different states, cities and neighbourhoods. We watch different movies, listen to different music, eat at different restaurants and get our news from different outlets.

This decision's most dangerous impact may be that we'll soon work at different places, divided by whether we want to work for a company that asserts religious values. 

The New York Times