What's the difference between CVS and Hobby Lobby?

As David Green heads to the Supreme Court toda to defend the way he runs his company, consider the parallel story of another corporate executive. These CEOs both made hard moral decisions for their companies. But they have been met with radically different outcomes.

Larry Merlo, the president and chief executive officer of CVS, decided that his company would stop selling tobacco products. The decision was both a moral and a personal one. The company’s press release stated that, “The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.” Merlo’s personal announcement said that it was the “right thing to do.” Merlo’s own father died of lung cancer when Merlo was just a boy.

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Merlo’s move was met with wide praise. Eighty-nine percent of respondents in a Facebook poll agreed that CVS had done the right thing. Even President Obama issued a press release, congratulating the corporation on setting a “powerful example.” Though his company faced a potential loss of billions of dollars, Larry Merlo didn’t want to sell a product anymore that everyone knows kills people.

Elsewhere, David Green of family-owned Hobby Lobby made the decision that he could not offer in employee healthcare plans the four forms of contraception that destroy an embryo, which to him was tantamount to an abortion. His company’s mission statement says that a guiding purpose is, “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.” Abortion is inconsistent with Biblical principles, and while the Green family has no moral qualms about contraception, they didn’t want to give employees drugs that can kill what is in their view an unborn person. For David Green, this was, as Larry Merlo put it, “the right thing to do” and “inconsistent” with their company’s “purpose.”

But no spiffy Facebook polls or presidential kudos for the Greens. No, they get a lawsuit. Because the Obama administration is forcing employers to provide these drugs in healthcare plans as a result of Obamacare, the Greens have had to fight their way to the Supreme Court, with the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defending them all the way.

One of the central arguments of the Obama administration’s lawyers is that one cannot concurrently pursue a profit and have values, especially when those values are religious by nature.  In one related case, the Department of Justice said, “Plaintiffs’ challenge rests largely on the theory that a for-profit, secular corporation…can claim to exercise a religion and thereby avoid the reach of laws designed to regulate commercial activity. This cannot be.” That’s fancy speak for, “If you turn a profit, say good-bye to your constitutional rights.”

Yet CVS’s announcement, and the president’s subsequent congratulations, were plain evidence that corporations do have a moral purpose, and that their CEOs play an important role in steering that purpose. [CVS embodies the notion that a CEO can make a moral decision on behalf of the corporation under the protection of the constitution.]

And Merlo’s moral reasoning was not even based in religious belief, which the Supreme Court makes clear should be protected by the strictest scrutiny, meaning that religious rights can only be curtailed when there is a compelling state interest, like public safety, and absolutely no other means by which the government can achieve the desired outcome. It doesn’t take a high IQ to realize that if the government wants women to have free abortion-drugs, it can find a way to do so without forcing business-owners to violate their most deeply held religious beliefs.

Two CEOs. Both have moral objections to a certain product on the ground that it kills. One is a hero, the other a villain. One gets a backslap from the president, the other gets dragged by the president’s administration all the way to the Supreme Court and threatened with IRS fines.

What is this?

It’s discrimination. Discrimination based on personal moral and religious belief. And that’s immoral. And unconstitutional.

McGuire is senior fellow with The Catholic Association.

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