With Hobby Lobby Decision, SCOTUS Heads Back to the Gilded Age

The good times keep rolling for corporations at the Supreme Court. Four years ago, Citizens United gave corporations the right to spend as much money as they’d like on elections (money = speech, you know), and now Hobby Lobby gave corporations the right to claim their religious beliefs should exempt them from laws they deem objectionable on religious grounds.

But looking beneath the surface of the Hobby Lobby ruling reveals a grander gift to corporate owners . . .

Among the benefits of a decision to incorporate is the ability to put a firewall between the non-business assets of the owners and the assets/liabilities of the corporation. That is, the personal property of the owners of a corporation cannot be touched in any kind of legal proceeding against the corporation. Bankruptcy decisions, judgments against the corporation in lawsuits, and tax liens are all limited to the assets of the corporation, and cannot touch those of the owners.

With Hobby Lobby, however, Alito et al. have now said that the wall between owners and the corporation is no longer a simple and solid shield, but kind of a quantum mechanics thing — sometimes solid, and other times permeable, but in either case helping the corporate owners. (Great primer on the “sometimes-a-wave-and-sometimes-a-particle” conundrum of quantum mechanics here.) Under the logic of Alito’s majority opinion, the owner is both (a) separate enough from the corporation to be able to protect his or her personal assets from liabilities owed by the corporation, and simultaneously (b) close enough to the corporation to win a religious exemption from federal law.  The owner’s money remains protected, even as the owner’s influence and power is increased.

Aren’t double standards wonderful?

Don’t answer yet, because things get even better for the owners.

Among the benefits of a decision to offer your employees health insurance is the ability to deduct the expense of that insurance from your corporate taxes, ostensibly because providing the insurance is seen as a public good. On their end of things, employees do not pay taxes on the insurance the way they do on their regular pay, again because of the general sense that people having insurance is something to be encouraged. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act prizes insurance so much that it set up procedures to encourage more people to have it, and required that the insurance provided meet a set of basic minimum standards.

But thanks to Hobby Lobby, things are different. The for-profit corporation with a religious exemption now doesn’t have to meet those basic minimum standards that have been set as what constitutes good insurance, but still gets the benefit of the tax break for providing this substandard insurance. The phrase “have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind.

I can hear the corporate chants of “Fine for me, but not for thee” going up, with new protections courtesy of this opinion from the Roberts Court. Give them another couple of years, and SCOTUS will make the Gilded Age look pretty damn rosy.

Image by DonkeyHotey and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

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