The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) subjects government-imposed burdens on religious exercise to strict scrutiny. In particular, the Act provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government can establish that doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.”
So suppose a for-profit corporation’s stock is owned entirely by evangelical Christians with deeply held religious objections to abortion. May our federal government force the company to provide abortifacients to its employees? That’s the central issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Supreme Court will soon decide. As is so often the case, resolution of the issue turns on a seemingly mundane matter: Is a for-profit corporation a “person” for purposes of RFRA?
In an amicus brief filed in the case, a group of forty-four corporate and criminal law professors argued that treating corporations as RFRA persons would contradict basic principles of corporate law. Specifically, they asserted that corporations are distinct legal entities from their shareholders, who enjoy limited liability behind a corporate veil and cannot infect the corporation with their own personal religious views. The very nature of a corporation, the scholars argued, precludes shareholders from exercising their religion in corporate form. Thus, for-profit corporations can’t be “persons” for purposes of RFRA.
In what amounts to an epic takedown of the law professor amici, William & Mary law professors Alan Meese and Nathan Oman have published an article explaining why for-profit corporations are, in fact, RFRA persons. Their piece in the Harvard Law Review Forum responds methodically to the key points made by the law professor amici and to a few other arguments against granting corporations free exercise rights.
Among the arguments that Meese and Oman ably rebut are:
- Religious freedom applies only to natural persons.
Corporations are simply instrumentalities by which people act in the world, Meese and Oman observe. Indeed, they are nothing more than nexuses of contracts, provided in standard form but highly tailorable by those utilizing them. “When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise. When we regulate corporations, we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.”
- Given the essence of a corporation, which separates ownership and control, for-profit corporations can’t exercise religion in accordance with the views of their stockholders.
This claim is simply false. First, it is possible — pretty easy, in fact — to unite ownership and control in a corporation. Business planners regularly do so using shareholder agreements, and many states, including Delaware, explicitly allow for shareholder management of close corporations. Second, scads of for-profit corporations engage in religiously motivated behavior — i.e., religious exercise. Meese and Oman provide a nice litany of examples (with citations omitted here):
A kosher supermarket owned by Orthodox Jews challenged Massachusetts’ Sunday closing laws in 1960. For seventy years, the Ukrops Supermarket chain in Virginia closed on Sundays, declined to sell alcohol, and encouraged employees to worship weekly. A small grocery store in Minneapolis with a Muslim owner prepares halal meat and avoids taking loans that require payment of interest prohibited by Islamic law. Chick-fil-A, whose mission statement promises to “glorify God,” is closed on Sundays. A deli that complied with the kosher standards of its Conservative Jewish owners challenged the Orthodox definition of kosher found in New York’s kosher food law, echoing a previous challenge by a different corporation of a similar New Jersey law. Tyson Foods employs more than 120 chaplains as part of its effort to maintain a “faith-friendly” culture. New York City is home to many Kosher supermarkets that close two hours before sundown on Friday and do not reopen until Sunday. A fast-food chain prints citations of biblical verses on its packaging and cups. A Jewish entrepreneur in Brooklyn runs a gas station and coffee shop that serves only Kosher food. Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays and plays Christian music in its stores. The company provides employees with free access to chaplains, spiritual counseling, and religiously themed financial advice. Moreover, the company does not sell shot glasses, refuses to allow its trucks to “backhaul” beer, and lost $3.3 million after declining to lease an empty building to a liquor store.
As these examples illustrate, the assertion by lower courts that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” is just empirically false.
- Allowing for-profit corporations to have religious beliefs would create intracorporate conflicts that would reduce the social value of the corporate form of business.
The corporate and criminal law professor amici described a parade of horribles that would occur if corporations were deemed RFRA persons. They insisted, for example, that RFRA protection would inject religion into a corporation in a way that “could make the raising of capital more challenging, recruitment of employees more difficult, and entrepreneurial energy less likely to flourish.” In addition, they said, RFRA protection “would invite contentious shareholder meetings, disruptive proxy contests, and expensive litigation regarding whether the corporations should adopt a religion and, if so, which one.”
But actual experience suggests there’s no reason to worry about such speculative harms. As Meese and Oman observe, we’ve had lots of experience with this sort of thing: Federal and state laws already allow for-profit corporations to decline to perform or pay for certain medical procedures if they have religious or moral objections. From the Supreme Court’s 1963 Sherbert decision to its 1990 Smith decision, strict scrutiny applied to governmental infringements on corporations’ religious exercise. A number of states have enacted their own versions of RFRA, most of which apply to corporations. Thus, “[f]or over half a century, … there has been no per se bar to free exercise claims by for-profit corporations, and the parade of horribles envisioned by the [law professor amici] has simply not materialized.” Indeed, “the scholars do not cite a single example of a corporate governance dispute connected to [corporate] decisions [related to religious exercise].”
- Permitting for-profit corporations to claim protection under RFRA will lead to all sorts of false claims of religious belief in an attempt to evade government regulation.
The law professor amici suggest that affording RFRA protection to for-profit corporations may allow such companies to evade regulatory requirements by manufacturing a religious identity. They argue that “[c]ompanies suffering a competitive disadvantage [because of a government regulation] will simply claim a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion. A company will adopt a board resolution asserting a religious belief inconsistent with whatever regulation they find obnoxious . . . .”
As Meese and Oman explain, however, this problem is not unique to for-profit corporations. Natural persons may also assert insincere religious claims, and courts may need to assess sincerity to determine if free exercise rights are being violated. The law professor amici contend that it would be unprecedented for courts to assess whether religious beliefs are asserted in “good faith.” But the Supreme Court decision the amici cite in support of that proposition, Meese and Oman note, held only that courts lack competence to evaluate the truth of theological assertions or the accuracy of a particular litigant’s interpretation of his faith. “This task is entirely separate … from the question of whether a litigant’s asserted religious beliefs are sincerely held. Courts applying RFRA have not infrequently evaluated such sincerity.”
In addition to rebutting the foregoing arguments (and several others) against treating for-profit corporations as RFRA persons, Meese and Oman set forth a convincing affirmative argument based on the plain text of the statute and the Dictionary Act. I’ll let you read that one on your own.
I’ll also point interested readers to Steve Bainbridge’s fantastic work on this issue. Here is his critique of the corporate and criminal law professors’ amicus brief. Here is his proposal for using the corporate law doctrine of reverse veil piercing to assess a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs.
Read it all before SCOTUS rules!