Will Bunch: A great day for the people formerly known as corporations

Demonstrators cheer yesterday's decision outside the Supreme Court in Washington. But not everyone wanted to cheer the ruling. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Demonstrators cheer yesterday's decision outside the Supreme Court in Washington. But not everyone wanted to cheer the ruling. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: July 02, 2014

SAY HELLO to a "person" who's rich, can buy a lot more political free speech than you can, and who now, apparently, has found religion.

Behold the ever-more-powerful 21st-century American corporation - which yesterday continued its winning ways at the U.S. Supreme Court in two landmark rulings that came at the expense of women's health services and the power of organized labor.

In one of the most closely watched cases of the 2013-14 term that ended yesterday, a divided high court ruled 5-4 that businesses - for religious reasons - can refuse to pay for their workers' birth control under Obamacare.

In a separate case, the justices also decided by a 5-4 vote that some types of government-funded workers - such as home-health-care workers - can't be required by law to pay union dues, in yet another, albeit small, erosion of U.S. labor's power.

Court watchers said the unmistakable message of these two latest releases by the Supremes is that corporations aren't just a "person" under American law, but a person continuing to grow in power. The broad rulings allow big business not just to spend unlimited dollars to influence elections but - in certain instances spelled out yesterday - to exercise religious freedom as well.

"Both of these rulings are blows against the rights of women and the rights of workers, while strengthening the hand of corporations," said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who specializes in constitutional issues. He said that's in keeping with the spirit of the court in the past nine years under Chief Justice John Roberts, which studies have said is the most pro-business court since the Gilded Age.

The most closely watched case centered on the 2010 Affordable Care Act and mandates that employer health insurance pay for female contraception. Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of craft stores whose owners profess strong Christian beliefs - and several other businesses with similar views - had sued claiming it would violate their religious liberty to pay for certain types of contraception.

An all-male, five-justice majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a decision that did not apply to all corporations - just so-called closely held corporations whose owners have clearly defined religious beliefs. Although it won't directly affect large, publicly held companies like Walmart and McDonald's, experts say the ruling covers employers of millions of Americans.

"A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends," wrote Justice Samuel Alito, the New Jersey-born jurist who penned both decisions. "When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people."

Critics jumped all over the ruling, arguing that the high court was letting employers come between a woman and her physician. Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg - citing what she called "the startling depth" of the ruling - worried that all sorts of nonpublic companies would cite religious grounds to opt out of all sorts of laws.

Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state widely assumed to be a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, called the ruling "deeply disturbing," while Obama administration officials urged Congress to enact legislation to find another way to finance birth control for any women affected.

This wasn't the first time the Roberts court has come under fire for expanding the rights and the influence of corporations. In particular, its campaign-finance ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case - which found that limits on political spending violated the free-speech rights of large corporations - led to calls for a constitutional amendment to reverse the notion of "corporate personhood."

A survey last year by the Minnesota Law Review found that Roberts and Alito are the two most pro-business justices to serve on the Supreme Court since the end of World War II.

Alan B. Morrison, a dean at the George Washington University School of Law, said that the Roberts Court has issued a long string of rulings - many of them barely noticed by the media - that have pumped up the power of corporations, but that yesterday was the first time businesses were found to have religious freedom. He quickly added that "obviously corporations don't pray, or go to heaven or hell."

Perhaps, but under the Roberts court, American businesses may be on their way to a state of nirvana.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

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