It’s been four years since the U.S. Supreme Court said, in the Citizens United case, that groups have the same free-speech rights as individuals.
The decision caused enormous, and misplaced, pundit angst. Only a few for-profit corporations have used the ruling to dip into politics.
Secret “social welfare”nonprofit
groups are an issue — they’re to blame for much of the explosion of cash in politics — but their existence came before the Citizens United decision.
Quietly, though, the court’s general finding that corporations and unions are essentially people is trickling into other cases, with devilishly complicated results.
This week, for example, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri helped file a Supreme Court brief supporting two secular companies that claim their religious beliefs exempt them from parts of the Affordable Care Act.
The companies, Blunt’s brief argues, can ignore part of Obamacare because, just like people, they have a statutory and First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
How a company or union might actually use that right, though, is pretty murky.
Secular groups don’t worship.Members
of a group can go to church, or pray, but a union or a company is a paper creation, legally distinct from its owners or members.
So real people have to decide how a company, union or neighborhood association “exercises” religious freedom. Who are those people? The owners? The CEO? Members? Stockholders? Workers?
And how? By majority vote? Executive fiat? A good guess?
And what might free exercise mean? Required prayer? Church attendance? Daily confession?
The brief doesn’t say exactly. It suggests owners of a “closely held” secular company with “sincere” beliefs can exercise the right. But what applies to one applies to all. If a candy store can exercise religion, so can Google.
Some groups are already constitutionally protected, of course: churches, synagogues and mosques. In those cases, the free exercise of religion is the purpose of the group, not a feature of it.
But Blunt and some colleagues now say secular, for-profit groups have similar protections.
“The Founders did not intend to extend free-exercise rights only to some organizations but not to others,” their brief says.
Corporations aren’t just people. They’re churches too.
The Supreme Court is expected to sort this out this summer. Watch carefully. Its ruling will be far more significant than Citizens United.