Corporations are people? It’s a real legal concept
Alito, in his ruling, described the concept of corporate personhood as "a familiar legal fiction" that retains its usefulness.
"It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings," he wrote.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, zinged Alito and the majority for "an expansive notion of corporate personhood."
She said the "startling breadth" of the court's ruling could clear the way for corporations to opt out of all sorts of other legal requirements if they can cite a religious objection.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2016, voiced similar concerns.
"Just think about this for a minute," she said. "It's the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom."
Some opponents of the ruling see the expanding view of corporate personhood as a legal fiction run amok.
They say the latest court ruling could encourage corporations to try to claim greater rights in other areas as well — arguing against cruel and unusual punishment if they think a fine is too big, for example, or even seeking a corporate right to bear arms. The courts already have extended to corporations Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches but have declined to provide them Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination.
After the Supreme Court's 2010 campaign finance ruling, attorney Burt Neuborne lamented: "At the rate the court is going, soon we will be able to be adopted by a corporation. Maybe even marry one."
Now, Neuborne calls the latest court ruling "an immense perversion of the Constitution. Robots don't have rights, trees don't have rights, and neither do corporations."
He warned that the ruling could backfire against corporations if the court goes too far in extending individual rights to businesses. Breaching the wall between corporations and their shareholders, he said, could ultimately make corporations liable for the actions of their shareholders and vice versa.
For example, if Hobby Lobby, one of the companies that sued against covering some forms of contraception, owed someone money, its creditors might try to go after the shareholders, he said.
"I suspect there's going to be trouble in paradise down the road," said Neuborne, who wrote a brief for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law arguing against extending religious rights to businesses.
Attorney John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general, said it makes sense that corporations have some of the same rights as individuals. After the court extended free-speech rights to corporations, "it's not a big leap to say that a First Amendment protection with respect to religious liberty would also apply to a corporation," he said.
Whether more rights should be extended, Bursch said, "is a little harder, and we'd all need to think about that."
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