Vischer on Religious Liberty and For-Profit Businesses

You should make the time to read Rob Vischer’s new piece, Do For-Profit Businesses Have Free Exercise Rights?  One interesting feature of the paper is Rob’s engagement with the First Amendment institutionalism literature.  He makes the case for some line drawing, in his usual careful and thoughtful way.  Here is the abstract:

Americans are understandably troubled by the prospect of Wal-Mart and the First Presbyterian Church as conceptually identical free exercise claimants. As an expanding array of for-profit businesses sue to block enforcement of the HHS contraception mandate, there is a danger that our failure to distinguish them will weaken the protections for all institutional free exercise claimants. Except for some still largely uncontroversial questions of internal church governance, the “moral bedrock” of religious liberty is increasingly contested when invoked by institutions. Absent some categorical distinctions, we risk what Fred Schauer and others have called “institutional compression” through a process “of leveling down rather than leveling up.” Nevertheless, in the wake of Citizens United, courts may decide not to embrace potential paths of distinction. If the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter for purposes of free speech, it is tempting to say that the identity of the actor doesn’t matter for purposes of free exercise.

Foreclosing a for-profit business’s standing to raise free exercise claims entirely is not justified. However, in light of the differences between corporate political speech and corporate religious exercise, and in light of the enormous market power wielded by for-profit businesses in the provision of essential goods and services, including the paths by which to earn a livelihood, a court would be justified in interpreting free exercise doctrine to reflect institutional distinctions.

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