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Rev. G. Jude Geiger Headshot

Corporations as Sovereign

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When our nation's founders colonized this land, their predecessors from Europe were largely seeking a life free from religious or social persecution. Tragically, our succeeding waves of colonizers would commit the same acts of persecution -- this time against Native Americans. They would also persecute, or banish, other Europeans -- now living in the colonies -- who had different religious views from their own. The colonies would become a mishmash of religious practice, segregated in the name of religious freedom. With little sense of the irony of each religious persecution, towns like Pocassett and Providence, Rhode Island, would form when Puritans exiled other Puritans on the basis of religious grounds and would become one of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.

Religious freedom didn't mean the right to segregate communities, or the right of secular authorities to dictate religious practice. It meant the freedom to live someplace with the same autonomy as everyone else, regardless of what religion one held. Since then, U.S. courts have upheld that this also means regardless of whether one even has a religion.

That started to change in our country when a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled to enact a practice that allowed corporations to have religious beliefs, thereby placing one's boss in between one's body and one's doctor. The all-male, all-Roman-Catholic majority would rule that a craft store, Hobby Lobby, could refuse to offer certain contraceptives to its employees through normal health insurance on religious grounds.

Interestingly, the contraceptives cited in the Hobby Lobby case are not in fact abortion. Apparently medicine, science and facts no longer have a place in our highest court, nor does the original meaning of the term "religious freedom." Hobby Lobby claims it won't offer contraceptives that might be considered abortions (but remember that factually, they aren't actually abortions) to its employees, but it's very willing to invest in the companies that produce such contraceptives, because they have good returns for their retirement-plan investments, or 401(k)s. They won't care for their employees who may need contraceptives for a whole host of medical reasons on so-called "moral grounds," but they are fully willing to profit from contraceptives on wholly financial grounds.

Our nation was founded partially through objecting to the monarchy. The idea that any one individual was sovereign on the basis of birth and luck was anathema to our founding fathers. They were opposed to forcing citizens (or maybe I should say "subjects") to share the same faith as their sovereign king or queen, and to the idea that any one individual was above the law based upon their stature or position.

This is particularly challenged by the Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United, perversely adapting the freedom of speech to corporations' ability to buy elections. This is where we first hear the expression "Corporations are persons." Our national heritage, our nation's founding documents, and my own faith tradition shout loudly that this idea is a lie! We lose each of our individual freedoms to voice and influence democracy when we trade voter transparency for practices of oligarchy where the top one tenth of the 1 percent get to secretly buy elections, transmute news into propaganda and replace facts with simply more partisan noise.

What we've created is a world where corporations are persons -- except we can't throw them in jail for criminal behavior, punitive fines often have no teeth, individual members of a corporate board are often not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation they profit from, and there has been little accountability for public malfeasance throughout very visible scandals tied to the collapse of Wall Street and the bailing out of the banks while the individual perpetrators received six-figure bonuses for their failure of leadership.

If we return to the beginning, looking back at what our founders fled from in Europe and eventually rebelled against England for, we see that we may have repeated familiar ground. "Persons" who are not subject to the same laws as the rest of us, who are able to force their employees to follow the same religious restriction they hold, who can control elections without accountability or transparency, and who can act with impunity sound awfully like the monarchs of old. Corporations are not persons, but we've allowed them to become sovereign.