Religious freedom

Ruling extends rights – but not responsibilities – to corporations

It should not be altogether surprising that the same U.S. Supreme Court that saw fit to extend freedom of speech rights to corporations would do so with religious liberties, but it does not make Monday’s ruling extending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to corporations any easier to swallow. Though the 5-4 decision is ostensibly limited to “closely held” corporations, the fundamental values it embodies are alarming: Corporate entities have the rights of individuals, but not necessarily the associated responsibilities or liabilities. The result is a power imbalance of distressing – and growing – proportion.

At issue in Burrell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., was whether the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring that employer-provided insurance policies cover contraception was a violation of those corporation’s religious rights. The court’s majority, in an opinion written by Samuel Alito, says it did.

But no need to worry, says Alito, for the ruling only applies to closely held corporations. Never mind that this is a notion whose definition varies widely; the Internal Revenue Service says they must have more than 50 percent of the value of their stock owned by no more than five individuals during the second half of the tax year – there is plenty of wiggle room in the definition alone. The Supreme Court has based its broad extension of religious liberty on the majority’s on an assumption that “it seems unlikely” that corporate giants will make the same claims as smaller companies similar to those that brought suit. That is hardly enough upon which to base a precedent-setting decision.

The court’s opinion, though, was primarily concerned with the extent to which the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to those who are not human beings, in the flesh. Time and again, the court reiterates just how human the law perceives corporations to be. “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people,” Alito wrote.

That may be, but leaping from there to the beliefs that a corporation may engender is a somewhat superhuman feat. In her strong dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes a clear distinction between nonprofit religious organizations and corporations that may be controlled by those with strong religious beliefs: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the court’s attention. One can only wonder why the court shuts this key difference from sight,” Ginsburg wrote.

It appears that the court’s majority is using blinders constructed of the corporation-as-human variety, relying repeatedly on the argument that, without people, corporations would not exist and therefore any law that protects corporations is really in place to protect its people. That would be defensible, perhaps, if it extended to the workers who rely on the corporation for their livelihood but do not necessarily share its officers’ religious values.

Under the Hobby Lobby decision, the rights of the powerful are more equal than others’. That is a misapplication of the Constitution in general and the Bill of Rights in particular.