Thursday, January 3, 2013

Corporations and religious rights

Lyle Denniston at the National Constitution Center has a piece in the Center's "Constitution Daily" publication entitled, "Constitution Check: Do profit-making corporations have religious rights?". It's a provocative question that is currently in the news because of Cyril and Jean Kortes. The Kortes have demanded the right for their business, K&L Contractors, to be exempted from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require employer-provided health insurance policies to cover contraception. The Kortes hold a majority stake in K&L and their lawsuit "explicitly claimed that their construction company has its own right to exercise religion, and as its principal owners, they have insisted that they run its operations every day to reflect their personal religious convictions."

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Kortes' argument, citing the Citizens United decision.

My gut instinct is that upholding the Kortes' claim will be bad for the nation. In the extreme it will permit businesses to indulge their owners' whims in defiance of the minimal set of standards set by government, i.e., the standards on which a majority of us have agreed. For sectors and regions with sufficient competition the result might be practically tolerable: employees unwilling to suffer one employer's policies could find employment elsewhere. (That is a very big "might".) However, where no effective competition exists, employees will be held hostage.

At some point we are going to have to address the Pandora's box of evils opened by the Supreme Court's insufficiently-thought-through granting of "personhood" to corporate entities. If time and my attention span permit, I plan to go through the Citizens United decision (again) to see if I can better understand the Court's reasoning and its implications. This is an exercise Congress should undertake, too, but I'm not holding my breath. A majority of Republicans are beholden to fanatically pro-business interests and will never look hard at this matter. I have a feeling the same holds true for Democrats too, though they have more room as a party to maneuver.

As the instinctive revulsion of most of the public to Citizens United showed, we are deeply uneasy with the idea that corporations can exercise the same rights as flesh-and-blood human beings. We need to crystallize our concerns and push back before time sanctions that convention as "the new normal" and makes reasonable limitations on corporate power impossible.

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