Friday, November 29, 2013

"Corporations are People, my Friend"

As Mitt Romney so infamously said. But are they? Are corporations people? The right-tilting side of the Supreme Court seemed to say yes with the Citizens United case in which they deemed that corporations have free speech rights just like people. Furthermore, they decided, not only are corporations people for the purposes of politics but money is the same as free speech.

Why do most people incorporate their businesses? Well, when my friends and I opened our pizza store, we became a Limited Liability Corporation for the purposes of insulating ourselves against the possibility of failure. We didn't want to be personally responsible for the debts left owing if the business went under, which a majority of small, new businesses do. The government wanted to encourage people to take chances on starting new businesses, which are the lifesblood of the nation's economy, so they made incorporation a way to eliminate the fear that if the company went down the toilet, the owner's personal lives wouldn't be flushed right along with it.

So, corporations were given special privileges that real people don't have but, in return, the owners of the corporation lost some rights too. The company now had to put their personal feelings aside and abide by the laws that dictate what corporations may and may not do.

At least, they have been until now. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that deal with the right of corporations to dictate their employees health care decisions on religious grounds. The Affordable Care Act requires that businesses must provide contraception to their female employees. In the first case, Sebelius v Hobby Lobby, the company objects to providing its employees with certain forms of contraception that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into the uterus (the sponge, the morning after pill, IUDs), which it considers abortion. In the smorgasbord of family planning choices, the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, picks and chooses for itself what it does and does not approve of. A lower court favored Hobby Lobby.

In the second case, the Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood Specialties, Inc. does not want to provide its employees with any type of birth control. The lower court sided with the government in this case.

Now the Supremes must sort it out. Will the same justices who declared that corporations are people for purposes of politics consider them people whose religious consciences must be honored?

In 1990, Antonin Scalia pooh-poohed the idea that Native Americans who were terminated for smoking peyote as part of a religious ceremony should be reinstated. It will be curious to see if he feels the same about providing contraception - or is it only his own religion which deserves such deference?

If the court's ruling is, once again, that corporations are people, where is the bottom of that slippery slope? Can a Muslim corporation mandate that its employees pray five times a day, while bowing to the east? Can it order its female employees to wear burkas while at work? Can a Jewish corporation insist that its employees not bring pork into the company cafeteria? Can a company owned by Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to pay for blood transfusions? Do those Indians fired for smoking peyote get their jobs back?

My own opinion is that the Supreme Court made an enormous misjudgment in ever declaring corporations even remotely like people. Corporations exist simply for the purpose of commerce. They are unfeeling, emotionless entities, their existences are simply law-created words on paper. It is not against the law to "kill" corporations (about which, Mitt Romney himself should be very glad since Bain Capital killed many of them). At the point owners choose to take their businesses public, they too lose the right to religious and political freedom. That's not to say they can't contribute to organizations that promote political parties or churches, but they themselves must be neutral. They must follow the laws of the land....all the laws of the land.

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