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Fourth place: Graduate/mature student essay contest by Zachary Tuck

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Corporate personhood’s oppression by religion

By Zachary Tuck
FFRF awarded Zachary $750 for his essay.

The First Amendment states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The amendment expressed the Enlightenment-era philosophy of reason espoused by many of the Constitution’s framers. The Establishment Clause also appealed to people who had faced religious persecution in Europe. The ongoing clash between science and religion and the growth of corporate personhood complicate the issue of religious freedom in a way not anticipated 200 years ago. Corporate religious expression has devastating consequences for women, LGBTQ persons and other minorities. The concomitant erosion of the separation of church and state lets corporations legislate from the board room, circumventing legal precedent to create biased hiring practices and control their employees’ and customers’ access to health, safety and freedom from persecution under the guise of religious expression. The exercise of free speech has been the battleground for corporate personhood. Corporations have a vested interest in removing any limits to political donations, which gives them greater clout than any human person, paving the way for decisions like Citizens United and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

The social movements of the 20th century, most notably the civil rights and women’s rights movements, created a fairer and broader definition of what it is to be human. One such source of power is the idea of bodily autonomy, which was advanced by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby carries with it the implication that a corporation can use a religion to make a medical definition, which thus becomes not only a public health concern, but a threat to women’s rights. In “The Hobby Lobby Decision: A Summary & Explanation,” the blogger known as Carmen breaks down one of the most insidious aspects of the majority decision by exploring a quote from Justice Samuel Alito: “The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.”

Note how carefully Alito words it: “according to their religious beliefs.” He had to do so because the four contraceptives at issue (Mirena, Paragard, Plan B and Ella) are not, in fact, abortifacients according to the FDA. This is really crucial. The court majority wrongly allowed Hobby Lobby to define what causes an abortion. The court is not solely culpable in this, given that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress, mandates additional safeguards against laws placing an alleged undue burden on the expression of religion, effectively paving the way for the Hobby Lobby case and others like it.

The 21st century has also witnessed the growth of the LGBTQ rights movement, which faces strong religious opposition. Michelle Chen at The Nation has reported on Hobby Lobby’s unwillingness to let a transgender employee of 16 years use her store’s bathroom, despite having legally transitioned. George Fox University, a Christian university in Oregon, applied for and was granted a religious exemption to Title IX requirements to provide appropriate accommodations for one of its transgender students. As the student himself points out in a report by Daniel Borgen:

“I deserve to be treated like the other men on campus. Apparently, the university disagrees, as they have made clear by forcing me to live off-campus. The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing. My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me. I don’t understand it and I don’t think it is fair.”

The Supreme Court and the prevailing political climate are strongly biased toward a very loose interpretation of the free exercise of religion. Each such law passed nationally or locally and supported judicially threatens the Establishment Clause — in word and spirit — and the freedom and safety of individuals and groups. Those of us who fear the imposition of religion, or impositions in the guise of religion, must fight the symptoms of this problem and face up to the problem itself: That no freedom is safe when corporate interests erode representative government.

Zachary Tuck, 30, Austin, Texas, is a student in the writing and literature program at California College of the Arts in the San Francisco area, working toward a bachelor’s degree.

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