Independence Day falls on the calendar within a few days of the Supreme Court's concluding session, which usually occurs on or about June 30. Not that many years ago, this coincidence was a happy one. We'd run up our flags and talk up our Court, which worked to protect our rights as citizens against intrusive or discriminatory government.
But that was then. Now, we're in an era when July 4 is best spent not thinking about the Supreme Court, or, if you insist, spent tallying the damage to our rights from rulings that protect, not citizens, but corporations.
Such is the case this year after the Court finished Monday with a pair of 5-4 decisions that cast off women's rights and labor rights while discovering corporate religious rights.
Wait, what? Corporations have religious rights? I know, it sounds absurd. It is absurd. But not to this Supreme Court, or at least not to the five conservative justices (Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts) who also decided, in the Citizens United case of 2010, that corporations have the same right to express themselves politically as, you know, regular folks.
Thanks to the five justices, you and I can talk politics all day long. And so can Walmart and ExxonMobil—except they do it with unlimited TV ads.
It's as if this Court thinks Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, forgot to say "that all men and corporations are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator or their corporate boards of directors with certain inalienable Rights," etcetera.
Actually, here's something Jefferson wrote years later: "I hope we shall ... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
In the more notorious case decided Monday, the Court held in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the religious beliefs of a company's owners trumped the personal rights of its women employees. At issue was whether Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and two other businesses which are also "closely held"—that is, are controlled by a small number of family members—can be required under the Affordable Care Act to offer health insurance covering the full range of legal contraceptives for women.
Some contraceptives violate their religious beliefs, the company owners maintained, because the way they work is tantamount to abortion.
Of course, the law did not require that these owners use contraceptives at all, let alone the specific ones to which they objected. It only required that they offer insurance to their employees (Hobby Lobby is not some little mom-and-pop, by the way; it has 15,000 employees) and let them decide about contraceptives consistent with their religious beliefs.
The 5-4 decision in favor of the owners, written by Justice Samuel Alito, was full of disclaimers: It doesn't apply to publicly traded corporations, Alito said, nor to other aspects of health coverage like, say, transfusions that might be objectionable to a religious owner. Nor should it be read to give corporations the right to discriminate in hiring based on "religion"—although Alito's list of off-limits discrimination omits sexual orientation.
Still, the ruling put a serious dent in a woman's right to choose effective contraception or, if desired, a legal abortion without interference from her boss.
More chilling, Hobby Lobby adorned the corporate form with religious garb for the political personhood dreamed up for business in Citizens United.
And who gets to exercise a company's political-religious rights? Not the employees, who don't get a vote. No, the owners decide—and if there are millions of owners, as with an Exxon or Walmart, a handful of directors and executives call the shots.
While the Court was beefing up corporate power Monday, it also took a chunk out of union clout in Harris v. Quinn. The case involved home health aides who worked under a contract negotiated with the state of Illinois by the Service Employees International Union. Some aides, who didn't join the union, objected to being assessed a "fair share" fee by the SEIU for its negotiations on their behalf.
In another 5-4 ruling by Alito, the Court said the fee was an illegal infringement of the workers' free-speech right to be against unions.
In sum, a majority of her fellow workers can't speak—through a union—for any single worker. But a few owners can.
Once again, Alito offered disclaimers. The decision doesn't apply to full-time government employees represented by unions, he wrote, only to part-time and contract workers. Full-time employees who opt out of a union can still be assessed.
Nonetheless, Alito's opinion reads like part one of a Texas two-step intended to saddle all public-sector unions with the same "right-to-work" rules that—especially in the South—have already crippled private-sector unions.
Within hours of the decision, Vox—a valuable new online service—posted an arresting chart. Since 1980, union coverage rates in the public sector have held steady at about 40 percent of workers. Meanwhile, private-sector coverage rates have fallen from over 20 percent of workers to less than 10—with "right-to-work" rules a major reason why.
So on this July 4, as we search for some force—government? unions?—capable of protecting our rights as citizens against the corporate colossus, let's heed the Jefferson remembered in Thom Hartmann's book, Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became 'People' And How You Can Fight Back.
"The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country," Jefferson wrote in 1809, "and feels no passion or principle but that of gain."
If he were on the Supreme Court today, Tom would be writing the dissents.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Rights of a Religious Corporation."