Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Case Really About Corporate Power

Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Case Really About Corporate Power

The Supreme Court's recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case has polarized religious and women's rights groups. Religious leaders see it as a victory for religious freedom. Women's rights groups see it as a blow to the rights of women to make contraceptive choices.

While those issues were certainly part of the decision, there is actually something larger happening. The case is really about the enlargement of corporate power. It is not an aberration, but part of a trend in Supreme Court decisions in the last several years.

Large corporations and their cohorts such as the Chamber of Commerce are on a roll with the Supreme Court. The most famous example is the pro-corporate decision in the Citizens United case from 2010. In that case, the court granted corporations the right to spend unlimited money to influence political campaigns. Basically, the court held that corporations and other business organizations have the same rights as real people to contribute money to political campaigns. Conversely, it held that trying to restrict those rights violates the First Amendment's free speech guarantees.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision is consistent with this concept of corporations as people. The Supreme Court held that "closely held" corporations (such as those owned by one family) could not be required to provide certain contraceptives to their employees through health plans. The Court held that a corporation's owners could not be forced to do this if use of those contraceptives went against the owners' sincere religious beliefs.

The Court was not troubled by the fact that the religious freedom law under which the case was decided only guarantees freedom of religion to people. As in Citizens United, the court found that corporations basically are people. Apparently, however, the only people that mattered to the Court were the corporation's owners - not its many rank and file employees who might want different things.

The Court also failed to address one glaring inconsistency: that the entire purpose of corporations is to legally separate the owners from their business organization. People form corporations to shield themselves from personal liability for the corporation's acts. They can do this because a corporation is considered an entirely separate entity under the law.

In other words, the entire point of a corporation is that its owners are not one and the same with the business organization. However, the Supreme Court thinks corporations should have their cake and eat it too. While the owners still don't have any personal liability for their corporation, they now get to exercise their personal rights of free speech and religious freedom through the corporation.

This is internally inconsistent. It is consistent, however, with the Supreme Court's overall trajectory. That trajectory is leading us toward more and more rights for large corporations and their wealthy owners. It is also leading us toward corporations getting all the same rights and benefits as people, with none of the corresponding legal obligations and liabilities. Meanwhile, the corporate employees, and people who want to enforce their legal rights against corporations, are the big losers.

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