Monday, July 29, 2013

On the Personhood of Corporations

As you know, the Supreme Court held that corporations have the right to spend as much money on political contributions as they'd like, because they have a right to free speech just like people. This was a twisted interpretation of a long-established principle in law that allows corporations access to the law as though they really are people. They can make contracts, sue, and be sued, basically. Oh, yes – and be taxed!

Of course, this is a convenient legal fiction that moves things along for all of us. But corporations do not vote (yet), get drafted, get executed for murder, make love, or go to the bathroom (except into our drinking water).

The question of where to draw the line between the legal fiction of corporate personhood and "Hey, let's get real!" is under dispute. The Roberts Court, which has been busy lately limiting the voting rights of real American persons will likely be heard from again as it champions the rights of corporations to freedom of religion.

Steve Benen has a good take on current developments:
At issue is a cabinet-making company called Conestoga, whose Mennonite owners oppose birth control on religious grounds. They filed suit challenging the contraception provisions in the Affordable Care Act, arguing that their faith applies to their for-profit business -- the Hahn family, which owns Conestoga, doesn't like birth control, so the family wants to leave contraception access out of the company's health plan.
As of yesterday, that argument didn't go over well in court.
A federal appeals court said Friday that the owners of a private company could not challenge the contraception mandate in President Obama's healthcare law.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said the owners of Conestoga, a cabinet-making company, could not challenge the mandate because of their personal religious beliefs.
It's a pretty straightforward decision -- corporations may be people (my friend), but according to the 3rd Circuit, the Hahn family can have its religious beliefs, but the cabinet-making company does not have religious beliefs of its own.
"We simply conclude that the law has long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself," wrote Judge Robert Cowen. "A holding to the contrary -- that a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise -- would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.
The ruling added, "The [contraception provision] does not impose any requirements on the Hahns. Rather, compliance is placed squarely on Conestoga. If Conestoga fails to comply with the Mandate, the penalties ... would be brought against Conestoga, not the Hahns."
This may seem like common sense, but the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby has filed a nearly identical lawsuit -- its owners don't like birth control for religious reasons, either -- and as Sarah Posner recently explained, this company has had far more success at the 10th Circuit.
And when two federal appeals courts disagree on the same question, the U.S. Supreme Court generally intervenes to settle the dispute. We may, in other words, soon see a major legal showdown over whether corporations have their own distinct freedom of religion that affords businesses the right to block their employees' access to contraception.
With six Roman Catholics on the Court (and no Protestants), how do you feel about the corporations' chances of getting religious freedom?

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