Do corporations have souls? Can corporations go to church? Can they fast?
These aren’t questions one might expect serious adults to pose. But with its earth-shattering pronouncement June 30 in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court has ensured a steady torrent of such ludicrous queries for years to come.
In his majority opinion in the 5-4 decision, Justice Samuel Alito interpreted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to mean closely held, for-profit corporations can hold religious beliefs, a novel concept.
Alito, though, claims the scope of this ruling is narrow, applying only to Hobby Lobby’s objections to employee Affordable Care Act coverage of female contraception.
“Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs,” he wrote.
In her fiery dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg blasted it as a “decision of startling breadth.”
“The Court … sees nothing to worry about,” she wrote. “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield … by its immoderate reading of RFRA.”
This verdict builds on the landmark 2010 case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said corporations had First Amendment rights.
Taken together with the Hobby Lobby judgment, it’s not at all alarmist to ask what might be next for corporate personhood.
On July 2, “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross of National Public Radio shared a light moment with Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, during her wrap-up of the court’s term. Gross contrasted these recent pronouncements with the possibility of justices taking up the same-sex marriage issue next year.
“The Supreme Court has given corporations certain religion rights and freedom-of-speech rights,” Gross said. “To not give gay people full rights, such as the right to marry, would that — that seem —”
“Well, maybe they could have the right to merge,” Liptak said.
“Gay corporations could marry each other?” Gross said, laughing.
That might sound like a joke, but very soon it might not sound so ridiculous.
THE ISSUE Decision of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby OUR VIEW It's not at all alarmist to ask what might be next for corporate personhood.