Of the people, for the people

The Supreme Court of the United States has in recent times ruled in favor of the “personhood” of corporations. First there was the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case. The Court ruled that political contributions are covered under the Constitution’s protection of free speech. Corporations were ruled to be “persons” and therefore, it is unconstitutional to restrict a corporation’s ability to contribute to political campaigns.

More recently, the SCUS ruled in a 5 to 4 decision, that Hobby Lobby, a large, privately held corporation, has the same protection under the Constitution’s provisions for the right to religious freedom as a person. Hobby Lobby protested the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that birth control be provided under an employee’s health insurance.

I think it is admirable that a major corporation such as Hobby Lobby puts policies in place which are consistent with the owner’s religious teachings. Paying better than the minimum wage and forgoing sales on Sundays are good things. The SCUS decision should make us all uncomfortable, regardless of one’s opinion on birth control, religious freedom, or Hobby Lobby’s policy of being closed on Sundays.

First, the question should be asked, “To whom does the health insurance provided as a benefit to an employee belong?” Whose labor pays for that insurance? Granted, the employer writes the check to the insurance company. Employer based health insurance as a widespread benefit of a job dates back to World War II. Factories had a hard time recruiting employees in a labor short, high demand economy. Prices and wages were controlled to limit runaway inflation. Health insurance and other fringe benefits were offered in lieu of higher wages to attract workers. To appease business, Congress enacted legislation that allowed employers to deduct insurance as an expense and to not be included in employees’ taxable wages. In essence, health insurance is provided in place of wages and should, therefore, belong to the employee. It is not given to workers out of the benevolence of employers. It is earned. What other medical treatment could possibly be deemed in conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs: blood transfusions, vaccinations, fertility treatments? Would it be acceptable for an employer to refuse to pay for insurance which covered any of those practices?

A second, and more serious, concern is the idea that a corporation is a person and therefore allowed all the protections of the Constitution and laws of the United States given to individual citizens. Corporations apparently are given all the rights and protections of an individual, but not the responsibilities.

The corporate structure is not a natural, God-given entity. It is a legal and artificial entity. It was invented to separate individual investors from the liability of their business ownership and to create incentives for investment. The owners of a corporation are personally exempt from liability for the actions of the corporation. If XYZ, Inc., harms their customers and is sued or cheats on their taxes, shareholders are not personally responsible. Only the value of shareholders’ investment in the company is at risk in both publicly and privately held corporations. The owners’ other investments: their cars, their homes, their other businesses, their retirement accounts are not in jeopardy. Corporations have different tax exemptions and are allowed to compensate their executives in ways that avoid taxes.

The religious beliefs of publicly held corporations would be harder to prove than that of a privately held corporation like Hobby Lobby. It is unlikely that all the shareholders of AT&T all hold similar religious beliefs. Still, it is possible that the Supreme Court will soon need to rule on other tax and legal mandates being objected to on religious grounds.

It seems that corporations have been given super person status. While a corporation cannot vote, the Citizen’s United decision has given these super persons virtually unrestricted power to influence how citizens vote and to use their resources without limit to influence elected officials once in office.

Abraham Lincoln said ours was a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” These rulings by the Supreme Court have changed the balance of power and influence in our democracy. Government by the people has come to mean something different from what President Lincoln envisioned.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains