Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc case. As virtually everyone is aware, the CEO of Hobby Lobby is contesting the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. The company's refusal to comply with the mandate stems from a religious objection to birth control and abortifacient drugs, and they insist that the First Amendment protects their right to exclude these prescriptions from their health insurance plans. One of the interesting questions at issue in this case is whether or not corporations are entitled to the same legal protections as individual persons. Supporters of Hobby Lobby are quick to point to the legal precedent set in the recent Citizens United ruling, which concluded that corporations, like persons, are protected by the First Amendment in the area of free speech. Thus, if corporations have the same speech rights as individuals persons, so too should they have the same rights of religious conscience. If Hobby Lobby is owned by a Christian family and governed according to explicitly Biblical principles, then it follows that the company's health care coverage may reflect those principles, and the government may not infringe upon this area of Free Exercise.
There is no question that the law has treated corporations as “people” for various reasons, particularly in the last century. Women- and minority-owned businesses, for example, are often entitled to the same kind of affirmative action and quota policies as individuals in these demographics. This debate has prompted journalists and commentators to engage in a review of the judicial history of corporate personhood, in an attempt to navigate the assertions being made in the Hobby Lobby case. Turns out, despite the popular impact of the Citizens United decision, that the habit of according individual rights to corporations is a relatively new phenomenon. From Slate:
“Contrary to present efforts to depict corporations as simple and natural entities—like persons—entitled to constitutional rights, a different view prevailed for most of American history. Until the mid-20th century, the corporation was seen as a special and artificial creature of the government. It has never been seen as entitled to the same array of rights guaranteed to citizens.