What religion does ExxonMobil observe? How about Cargill, or Ford? If the question seems absurd, that's because it is -- corporations don't have religions.
But Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, a kitchen-cabinet manufacturer with almost a thousand workers, has asked the Supreme Court to find that it has a constitutional right to get out of following the same law that its competitors must, because the law goes against its "corporate religion." (Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts retail chain, makes a similar argument.)
Conestoga is challenging an Affordable Care Act provision requiring large employers to either offer minimum basic health insurance, or pay back the public for providing that insurance. Under the rules, minimum coverage includes (among other things) contraception. Now many people of faith are religiously opposed to some (or all) contraceptives, and the regulations sensibly exempt churches and other faith-based nonprofits from this requirement.
But Conestoga is a business, not a church. Under the law, it must provide that insurance coverage for its employees, who come from various religious traditions. Yet it asked the Supreme Court to declare that it has a constitutional right to a special exemption based on corporate religious objections.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked the companies' lawyer in the courtroom in March, "How does a corporation exercise religion?" To most Americans, it doesn't make sense. People have religions. People come together in religious communities, like churches, synagogues, and mosques. If the government violates someone's freedom of religion, that's a real issue.
But corporations aren't people -- they're artificial legal entities, created by state law. They aren't "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence. No, corporations are the product of human-made laws, and a corporation's "creator" -- little "c" -- is the state that grants the corporate charter creating it in the first place.
These laws give corporations certain legal rights, including special privileges, such as limited liability, that aren't available to people. These laws aren't written on stone tablets. They came about after our Constitution, and state legislatures tweak them from time to time. But they create and define a legal entity, the corporation, that's legally separate from its stockholders.
That's good for business: if Conestoga is overwhelmed by a business debt, the
creditors can't sue the stockholders. This separate legal existence is the whole point of corporations. And Conestoga and its stockholders -- quite properly -- have enjoyed the benefits of corporate separateness.
But there's the rub. Conestoga claims that, because its stockholders object to some contraceptives, the corporation shouldn"t have to pay for health insurance that employees might use for contraception. It claims that the Supreme Court has recognized religious rights for "corporations" before -- but its examples involve incorporated churches and religious nonprofit organizations. And a for-profit corporation just doesn't have the same relationship to its stockholders as a church does to its members.
Some people think this is just about birth control. But Conestoga's arguments go much further. Corporations are owned by people of every religious stripe,
and they can disagree with laws about anything: workplace safety, job discrimination, consumer protection, the environment, tobacco advertising -- there's no limit. And this isn't just about small family businesses; big businesses such as Tyson Foods and Forever 21 say they're religious, and "family-owned" companies include mega-corporations such as Koch Industries and Wal-Mart. That's why Free Speech For People submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that for-profit corporations can't claim "religious exemptions" on behalf of their stockholders.
The Supreme Court could issue its decision any day now. If the Court sides with Conestoga, then corporations that don't profess a religion right now will
start looking for one, so they can claim religious objections to any laws they find inconvenient or expensive. And when corporations start celebrating
religious conversions, ordinary Americans will pay the price.