Can a “secular, for-profit corporations” engage in the “exercise of religion”?

February 10th, 2013

Following up on my analysis of the Third Circuit’s recent contraceptive mandate case, Kevin Walsh offers a detailed analysis of why corporations should be allowed to bring claims under RFRA, and makes several important points about prominent free exercise cases that involved corporations.

Again, the claim is not that corporations cannot engage in exercise of religion. After all, corporations can, and do, exercise religion. Consider, for example, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. or Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The claim, rather, is limited to “secular, for-profit corporations.” But the claim rests on a mistake about “exercise of religion” under federal law and a mistake about corporate action.

As to “exercise of religion,” it is plain that a religiously based refusal to do something otherwise required by law is an “exercise of religion.” Indeed, two of the leading cases on the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause involved individuals who refused, in the course of their employment (profit-seeking employment!) to do something. Because of their religious beliefs, Eddie Thomas refused to fabricate tank turrets andAdele Sherbert refused to work on Saturdays. These religion-based refusals were their protected exercises of religion.

A corporation’s religion-based refusal to engage in a particular action is also an “exercise of religion.” A corporation’s religion-based refusal to open its stores on Sundays, for example, is as much an exercise of religion as an individual’s refusal to  work on Saturdays. The involvement of a profit motive makes no difference. People work for money, and some choose not to work on certain days for religious reasons. Similarly, for-profit corporations operate for money, and some choose not to operate on certain days for religious reasons.

I agree with Justice Alito that some of the most prominent First Amendment cases (speech and religion clauses) were brought by corporations. In these cases, the Court paid scant attention to the corporate form.

This post-Citizens United kerfuffle about constitutional rights for for-profit corporations seems ahistorical.