The Slippery Slope of Individual Rights for Corporations

Written by Elisa Lerner on July 18, 2014


The Supreme Court is supposed to protect everyone’s rights, interpreting our laws so that each person is valued equally. But in Hobby Lobby and other corporate cases, the Court seems to be granting special rights and privileges to corporations. 

It's easy to codify rights on paper, but they may conflict in practice.  When corporate rights conflict with the rights of individuals, who should prevail? When corporate rights impinge on those of living persons, our democracy is threatened.

Corporations are legal constructs, nothing more.  A corporation can’t be put in jail or drafted into the military and it can’t cast a vote.  Corporate leaders often can't be held accountable for actions taken on behalf of the corporation’s interests.

In short, corporations are held to different standards from those applied to people -- they are rewarded and punished on a strictly monetary scale. 

Hobby Lobby’s owners claimed that federal requirements that they provide female employees with health insurance coverage for contraceptives would compromise their religious beliefs.  But the company’s insurance not only paid for contraceptives prior to the Affordable Care Act, it continues to cover vasectomies, even as Hobby Lobby outsources jobs to China, a country that coerces its citizens into getting abortions.  If Hobby Lobby opposes abortion, why are they doing business in a country that forces it?

The Court’s decision would allow corporate leaders to use their religious beliefs to protect their corporate bottom line. 

Some supporters of the decision question why employers should be required to pay for health insurance that covers birth control. But to function fully in the workplace and support their families, women need to know that they can work without being interrupted by unplanned pregnancies.

Personal family decisions, including when to have children, should be made by a woman and her partner, and only them.  Although corporations such as Hobby Lobby are not blocking their employees’ access to birth control, their claims of a religious exemption to certain health insurance plans could make it much more difficult for their employees to obtain affordable health care.  Price is the kind of barrier that keeps women from achieving those goals. 

In Citizens United, the Court said that corporations have a free speech right to use their general treasury funds to influence elections.   In Hobby Lobby, the court said that corporations can claim government policies burden their religious “rights.” As corporations transform legally from business entities into people, the rights of real humans are diminished.  The conversation has shifted away from what rights we explicitly grant corporations to the rights to which they are constitutionally entitled.   

The Hobby Lobby decision relieves “closely held corporations” from paying for health insurance that covers employees’ contraceptives if doing so violates corporate leaders’ religious beliefs.  We need to be more selective about granting such exemptions when a freedom granted to one person creates a burden on others.

The head of a corporation has the same rights as any other American, but no one’s freedom is unlimited.  Freedom for the few does not mean a lack of freedom for the many.  Freedoms must be balanced.  Free speech doesn’t include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.  Freedom of religion doesn’t permit polygamy.  

We should be asking ourselves whether our desire to honor the individual rights of corporate owners justifies treating their corporations like people.  The fundamental question is whether a society in which corporations have the same - if not more rights - than people, is still democratic.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Exposing Corporate Power

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