People have freedom of religion guaranteed to them by the Constitution. Lately there has been controversy—for example, in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby—about whether corporations need such a freedom as well. I can help answer that: No. They do not.
People can already assert individual rights to religion. When a person creates a corporation, he no more needs additional religious rights for that corporation than a person with a megaphone needs additional free speech rights for that megaphone. A corporation is not a new and distinct human being.†
Corporations are avatars that represent people, performing actions on their behalf, but with augmented strength. But, in so doing, they are like the “power loader” exoskeleton donned by the character Ripley in the movie Alien, or like the superhero armor worn by Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. These vehicles magnify the power of their wearers over others.
It all begins with an understanding that the ones with the brains, with the religion, with the political intent, and with the ethical responsibility are real, natural people who own these corporations. Everything else about corporations is just a vehicle for packaging and focusing power under their control. With rights come responsibilities, and if there is to be neither desire nor mechanism to hold corporations to the simplest social graces that we would demand of any civil person, then we must not think of them as we do civil people.
Consolidated and magnified power, unfettered by the social graces, does not require protection. Indeed, those without magnified power, those at the mercy of such power, are the ones needing protection. That's why we have rights at all—so that puny little people like any of us can stand up against bigger entities, like companies and governments. To say that then companies and governments need the same rights as ordinary people is to make a mockery of the very purpose of our rights. It is to diminish and dismantle human rights, not to extend them.
If a corporation imposes ethical choices upon employees, that's not the corporation protecting its natural rights. That's a person or a gang of people using the magnified power of employment to coerce other people not to follow their own religious beliefs. We've learned to recognize such coercion in the case of sexual harassment, and to understand that there is a responsibility of the powerful in an employment situation not to coerce the behavior of the weak. This is really no different.
The analogy may confuse you if you are comparing religion to sexual harassment, but that's not the right point of view. Both sex and religion can be beautiful things, but only when freely elected. Either forced sex or forced religion is an atrocity. An exercise of power, devoid of joy. A crime.
We allow an employer to use threats of firing to maintain a certain degree of order within a company, but only as long as that order relates to the business. We do not and must never allow employers to use any such threats to coerce behavior outside the scope of the business.
As a free citizen of the United States, you may choose what parts of your religion you like or don't. You can elect to be Jewish and yet perhaps you eat cheeseburgers. And yes, you can be Catholic and still use birth control. These are personal choices you make. Your religious advisors may even be offended. But that's between you and them, not between you and your employer. If your employer is allowed to intervene, even if he thinks he's just exercising his freedom of religion, he's using his magnified power to disallow you from exercising your own.
And that's the crux of it, the meta-rule of religion: Your religious rights stop when they start to infringe mine. We each must leave space for one another. Birth control is a personal choice, and something we each need to decide for ourselves. Employees do not make birth control decisions for their employers, and the same must be true in reverse. Any pretense that the company has a religious need separate from and beyond that of the owners just distracts from the fact that the owner's sphere of personal influence is being allowed to be bigger than by any right it should be.
Moreover, it will not stop there. The issues in question are not about the company being asked to pay for birth control, but merely about a company being asked to pay for access to a company that might pay for birth control. There is already an indirection in place. This indirection is really no different than the fact that the company is paying wages to a person who might pay for birth control, and the next natural step is to allow the company to control what happens with those wages.
It is simply not the company's business in either case. Health care is needed by employees, and it's up to each employee's sense of ethics and religion to elect what is appropriate, within the bounds of the law, to satisfy that need. For a company to dictate more is to either privately dictate a person's ethics and religion or to privately dictate the bounds of law. Either is unacceptable.
Corporations are not people. They do not get offended. Owners of companies get offended. And, if we let them, they'll use their artificial shells of power, like the image of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, to make their sense of being offended more seem bigger, more important, and more menacing in order to coerce behavior. Corporations might dictate rules that must be followed by employees to keep their jobs. These powers may often be justified as needed for the correct function of the business, and the quality of its product. But there is no correct function of any business in play with the use of birth control—except, ironically, that some businesses might be adversely affected if the people working for them cannot avoid pregnancy and become distracted by an inability to plan the size and timing of their respective families.
Birth control must be the choice of the employee because it is an activity beyond the scope of employment. There is no defensible corporate interest in keeping employees from having control over family matters. It is a naked abuse of power by certain business owners over their employees and a perfect illustration of why corporations must not be accorded some artificially drawn freedom of religion.
Corporate religion is just institutionalized coercion trying to take hold.
We the Flesh-and-Blood People must draw a line.
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This third and final part of a 3-part series was originally published December 6, 2013 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. The first part was Corporations Are Not People. The second part was We The People (and Corporations).
Tags (from Open Salon): politics, incorporation, corporations, corporate personhood, legal personhood, legal person, legal personality, taxation, crimes, punishment, imprisonment, life, death, death penalty, urination, trickle down, census, social security, robbery, slavery, human trafficking, murder, pro-life, childhood, contracts, travel, passport, visa, home country, citizen, citizenship, speech, religion, freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, religious freedom, philosophy, ethics, vote, voter, voting, run for office, running for office, candidate, elect, election, elected, office holder
†Note that even if you disagree with me, and think that a corporation really is a distinct person, the problem is that such so-called legal people are veritably required under stockholder theory to behave sociopathically. See my article Fiduciary Duty vs. The Three Laws of Robotics for an elaboration of why. In such cases, where legal people are neither asked nor expected to exhibit other-than-selfish behavior, special restrictions to hold that selfish behavior in check, not special encouragement to be as free as possible in the exercise of that selfish behavior, would seem more appropriate. The notion of a free society is based precisely in the assumption that most of us will not behave sociopathically. It is a calculated gamble that we will tend to do well by each other if allowed the chance. It would be irrational to make such a gamble situations where we do not have such an expectation.