Corporations & Religious Freedom II: That Person Thing

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

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In my previous essay on corporations and religious freedom, I addressed the issue of whether or not being compelled to provide a health plan that covers contraception is a violation of a corporation’s religious freedom. My conclusion was that it was not. I now turn to the more general issue of whether or not a for-profit corporation is the sort of legal (fictional) entity that can be justly ascribed the capacity for religious belief and hence a right to exercise religious freedom.

As noted in the previous essay, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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