Corporations are becoming people

by Joe Praska- University alumnus

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. These cases are looking to ask federal courts to exempt for-profit corporations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that employer-covered health insurance must cover preventative care for women, but more specifically, contraceptives. Hobby Lobby, among others, is claiming that providing these services would violate the religious freedoms of corporations under federal law.

Setting aside any contention regarding the justification of contraception in a moral sense, what cases such as these are really tackling is the idea of personhood. The 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission looked at this very same issue, with what I consider unfortunate results. This decision stated that “the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions.” As most Americans agree (80 percent according to an ABC News and Washington Post poll, including 76 percent of Republicans) this decision set a dangerous precedent on the grounds of corporate personhood. If any major political decision can justify a slippery slope argument, it is this one, and we’re seeing it as it’s happening.

Coming hard on the heels of the court’s Citizens United ruling, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius are now attempting to take this idea of corporate personhood to the next level. The corporations are claiming that for-profit corporations not only have the right to contribute to political campaigns as a person would, but to pick and choose laws and mandates to follow by citing religious freedom rights of individuals.

Previously, the Supreme Court has stated that a “corporate owner/employee, a natural person, is distinct from the corporation itself, a legally different entity with different rights and responsibilities due to its different legal status.” When the Green family incorporated Hobby Lobby (as countless other business owners have), they created a legal entity separate from themselves out of their business. While business leaders such as the Greens have the individual religious freedom to use their personal wealth and earnings to fund a project such as a world-class Bible museum, Hobby Lobby, which is separate from them, does not.

The precedent behind this concept has already been set by a former Supreme Court case, United States v. Lee, in which the court determined that an employer’s religious beliefs could not exempt their company from a federal law or business regulation that would otherwise apply to a competitor. The ruling specifically stated that “limits [employers] accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”

In effect, this recognizes that any religious exemption for a for-profit company would craft an unfair advantage for said company in the market, an advantage that would also pave the way for employers to unfairly impose religious faith on employees.

The Hobby Lobby case and others like it have no real basis in Christian fundamentals, morals or religious freedom. Rather, it is an attempt to diminish the concept of personhood from a protection of our individual liberties to a blanket tool (or weapon) in order to further the agenda of corporate control over our political system.

A victory for Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court, which seems more and more likely from the precedent from cases like Citizens United, would be nothing more than another loss for the American people.