Can corporations use freedom of religion to challenge government statute? An article in the journal of the American Bar Association analyzes the issues.
Corporations, like individuals, have the right to engage in political speech, the U.S. Supreme Court said three years ago. The “corporate identity” of a speaker did not justify a reduced level of free speech protection, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
“No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
But in the aftermath of Citizens United, lower courts are dealing with the question of whether those rights extend beyond political speech. Do corporations—including secular, for-profit corporations—possess religious liberty rights too?
The issue arises as individuals and corporations have filed lawsuits challenging the new health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The plaintiffs object to being forced to support abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization through insurance policies. They are claiming that, just as corporations have free speech rights, so too should companies have the right to deny employees medical services that counter the owners’ religious beliefs.
By February, at least 48 lawsuits with more than 140 plaintiffs had challenged the act, says Edward White, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group that is handling five suits and has filed amicus briefs in 16 others.
“The raft of ACA cases raises the specter of doctrinal inconsistency within First Amendment jurisprudence between freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” says First Amendment expert Clay Calvert of the University of Florida. “If Citizens United means that secular, for-profit corporations possess the right to freely express political viewpoints by spending money, then at first glance it seems to follow that such corporations also possess the right to freely exercise religious beliefs by refraining from spending money.”