Hobby Lobby Ruling Could Spell Corporate Trouble | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Hobby Lobby Ruling Could Spell Corporate Trouble


Publisher Todd Stauffer

I believe two forces seem likely to rend the Republican Party in two over the coming years. Those forces are (a) those who believe "freedom of religion" means imposing their religion on others, and (b) those who believe that the welfare of the modern-day corporation—and the policies that favor them—should be at the center of the country's political concerns.

The triumph of the Republican Party since the 1970s has been in aligning those two basic interests—corporate-crony conservatives and religious conservatives—in ways that caused them to work together and allowed them to build their power base.

Generally, it's the GOP over the past few decades that has succeeded by running on religious hot-button issues (and, often, "fear of the other" memes) in order to gain seats and statehouses, but then, once in office, they frequently find ways to please their corporate financiers with ports, subsidies, tax abatements, bailouts and the like.

But some of the most recent short-term "corporate personhood" successes for this alliance may ultimately be their undoing.

One of the basic problems that we have in this country is the structure of the modern corporation—particularly large, multi-national corporations.

Indeed, a number of ills could be addressed by tweaking the way corporations chartered in this country work—from income inequality and labor disputes to taxes, health insurance and the funding of political campaigns.

Now, add to that list both health insurance and religious freedom—including your right to be free from your boss' religion.

Just as human "personhood"—the notion that "a person becomes a person at conception"—is essentially an unprovable philosophical belief, corporate "personhood" is also a philosophical construct, and one that's even more of a metaphor, since a corporation is never a human, and never will be.

And yet, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently granted this legal construct what amounts to First Amendment rights of both speech and freedom of religion, although, in the second case, it only has that freedom if it meets certain tests that make it a "closely held" corporation.


First, with the Citizens United decision and now with the Hobby Lobby case, the John Roberts court has been too willing to cede power that should clearly be reserved for individuals—freedom of speech and freedom of religion—by granting them to corporations.

The government charters corporations, and they're designed, in part, to shield a group of individuals from some personal liability while enabling them to pool their resources (or reach out for more, such as through public offerings of stock) in order to grow the organization larger than it could be as a sole proprietorship or partnership. If every investor in a corporation were 100 percent liable for every action taken by the corporation as a whole, you'd have many fewer people willing to invest in small corporations or buy stock in larger ones.

The Hobby Lobby case is particularly interesting because it seems to be the first time that the Supreme Court has ever said that a subset of a corporation's shareholders could assert their religious rights in such a way that the corporation should be said to have those same religious views.

Let's say it again. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a government-chartered legal entity, now has religious beliefs, which somehow pass through from its controlling shareholders. It has those religious beliefs regardless of the amount of time that Hobby Lobby spends in church, or how often Hobby Lobby pops up from its foundation and heads downtown to a soup kitchen or off on a mission trip.

Not only is Hobby Lobby now a fundamentalist because enough of its shareholders are, but it's also able to assert "its" religion beliefs in a way that affects the compensation its workers receive. (At least, the female workers. So far.)

This leads one to wonder what other non-scientific but religious or political constructs will be allowed to govern employee health-insurance choices—some Jehovah's Witnesses won't accept blood transfusions, for instance, and Christian Scientists will sometimes reject any medical care. So why should those business owners cover those things under their employee benefits program? If the Supreme Court gives them an opt-out clause because their religion trumps their employees, who's to stop them?

The religious conservative just shrugs his shoulders and says "well, don't work there." Maybe it's not that easy. Maybe Hobby Lobby is conveniently located near your home—after all, many of them seem to be located in old Walmart buildings after the Waltons decided to move all those jobs to the other side of the county.

Or maybe you like arts and crafts—and you're good at it. Maybe the job fits your skill-set and passion.

But the corporate conservative might have more to worry about—this decision could allow a "piercing of the corporate veil," as Alex Park put it in a recent story for Mother Jones. By allowing a corporate shareholder's beliefs to somehow flow through the corporate "person," one could argue that they're not really two different "persons" after all. In other words, why not simply do away with the liability protections afforded by the corporation since now, at least from a religious perspective, the corporation and its owners are one?

That's what a "friend of the court" brief filed by 44 corporate and criminal law professors argued in the Hobby Lobby case—and the presumption is there could now be a slew of lawsuits against corporate shareholders that, if successful, would require changes in corporate law.

Something about the current law seems to confuse able jurists such as Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito—and that's our sign that it's time to legislatively reign in the definition of a corporation such that it is something less than a "person"—and something more like a group of human beings working toward a common goal.

That's the point, after all, and since the government charters corporations, it's something we can fix through government—and should. In fact, maybe this is something that corporate Republicans—and the Democrats they're running to in order to stave off their Tea Party insurgencies—could agree on?

Todd Stauffer is the publisher of the Jackson Free Press.

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