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Life Begins at Conception, Ends at Birth, And is Resurrected by Incorporation

Dahlia Lithwick is a national treasure. There is no one better at covering the Supreme Court and calling them on their shit.

Hobby Lobby and corporate personhood: The alarming conservative crusade to declare everything—except people—a legal “person.”

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius—a pair of cases probing whether the religious rights of a for-profit corporate entity allow it to refuse to provide for employees insurance that would include certain forms of birth control. In so doing, the court may now be forced to reckon with the question of whether the same corporate personhood that includes the right to free speech also encompasses rights to religious conscience. In other words, Corporate Personhood is back! And this time, it’s got God on its side. . . .


There is almost no way for the Supreme Court to analyze the Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims or the First Amendment claims raised in the two challenges to the birth control mandate without contemplating the prospect of corporate personhood. Certainly the two religious families that own the businesses challenging the birth control mandate argue that the law’s bar on government efforts to "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" applies to corporations as well as people. Hobby Lobby operates more than 500 arts-and-craft stores and employs about 13,000 people. It operates "in a manner consistent with biblical principles." (It’s closed on Sundays, for instance.) Conestoga Wood Specialties is a Pennsylvania woodworking firm run by a Mennonite family that employs almost 1,000 workers.

At least some appellate courts have been more than open to extending the corporate personhood metaphor as unfurled in Citizens United to include religious convictions as a component of corporate personhood. As the appeals court judge in the Hobby Lobby challenge explained in his majority opinion: “We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression.” Because there is no way for the courts to assess which religious convictions are heartfelt and which are merely opportunistic, there can be no limiting principle here. If for-profit secular corporations have religious beliefs, companies run by Christian Scientists can be free to limit medical treatment and those run by Jehovah's Witnesses could object to paying for blood transfusions. Artificially created constructs that exist to shield owners from lawsuits will be able to shield owners from compliance with basic civil rights laws.

Meanwhile, and in a completely different context, the legal metaphor around what constitutes “personhood” has been stretched beyond recognition in another direction: Across the land, the personhood movement has been attempting for several years now to confer the status of legal personhood to fertilized eggs, granting them all the same civil rights as actual people, and thus effectively banning abortions and some forms of birth control. The federal version of the proposed personhood bill would grant a “one-celled human zygote” all of the “constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”