Should They Also Have Obligations as Persons?
Written by John Lounsbury
Recent Supreme Court decisions have ruled that corporations have some of the same rights as persons. In this discussion we will refer to that condition as "personhood". In Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010) the SCOTUS ruled that first amendment rights of persons also apply to corporations, associations, or labor unions. Furthermore the ruling interpreted the spending of money as the equivalent of speech.
On 30 June 2014 the SCOTUS ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stories Inc. (Case number 13-354) that closely held corporations do have religious rights. The case involved the refusal of a family owned business to offer birth control portions of mandated health insurance coverage on grounds of religious belief. Hobby Lobby and other companies owned by the same family were determined by the court to be personal religious extensions of the owners' personhoods.
The majority opinion written by Samuel Alito stated that a closely held corporation does "have rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)". That law states that the government is prohibited from substantially interfering with a
" ... person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability".
The ruling was specific in stating that it applied only to closely held corporations and specifically only to birth control.
Potential Inconsistency Regarding Religious Belief
The majority opinion specifically stated that the ruling did not apply to mandated vaccinations, blood transfusions or any mandate other than birth control.
This puts the SCOTUS in a position for future cases in which a closely held corporation objects to any one or more of the other mandates based on religious belief. How can a future court rule differently for any such case? What if the religious belief is that medical treatment of any kind is a sacrilege? Can a future corporation be exempted from any and all health insurance coverage requirements for employees on such grounds?
If the SCOTUS draws a line and puts some treatments on one side of a "belief line" and other treatments on the other side, doesn't this constitute a definition of what is acceptable religion in the eyes of the state? Isn't such a situation a violation of the Fifth Amendment?
Inconsistencies Regarding Rights and Obligations of Persons and Corporations
The recent decisions have effectively expanded the benefits of incorporation. All corporations have the rights of personhood free speech under the First Amendment. Closely held corporations have the rights of personhood with respect to religion under the Fifth Amendment. A short table has been constructed to show the current state of personhood protections as defined by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The situation that now appears to be the law of the land has created an underclass of participants: individuals. Corporations, and to the greatest extent closely held corporations, have a preferred status within the United States. While individuals still have all rights intact, closely held corporations have a preferred standing with respect to liabilities and retain the same rights as individuals regarding free speech, using money as speech and religious freedom.
If closely held corporations have the rights of personhood shouldn't they also have the same obligations (liabilities)? And should corporations of all kinds have the individual right of free speech without accepting some increased individual liabilities for their majority owners and principal officers?
Have the five justices considered the depreciation of the individual as a consequence of their elevation of the corporation? Do they realize the individual has become a "second class citizen" with respect to the majority owners of corporations and corporate principal officers?
These five men may not have a clue.