Reagan-appointed judge says religious rights are "inherently human"

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on a new aspect of corporate personhood – a corporation's right to the free exercise of religion. Judge Robert Cowen rejected a company's claimed that it should not have to provide birth control under Obamacare for religious reasons. Judge Cowen – a Reagan appointee – ruled that the for-profit corporation was not entitled to the First Amendment's freedom of religion protection, distinguishing it from the freedom of speech protection afforded companies under Citizens Untied.

In his opinion, Judge Cowen wrote, “we simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation – apart from its owners – can exercise religion.” He directly addressed the Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations the right of free speech under the First Amendment, but ruled that the Free Exercise Clause, which protects religious freedom, is an “inherently 'human' right.” This is the first time since Citizens United that a major federal court has asserted that some constitutional protections are meant for only real, human individuals.

This case will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, and its fate there is far from certain. In a previous Supreme Court case, United States v. Lee, the Justices ruled that religious liberty does not permit an employer to “impose the employer's religious faith on the employees,” however the current Roberts Court has a history of pro-corporate rulings. While this specific case centers on whether an employer has the right to deny contraceptive coverage, the larger point is whether corporations have the right to religious freedom. And, whether their freedom trumps the rights of their employees.

Many Americans believe that corporations are not people, and should not have the same protections under the Bill of Rights as human individuals. The Supreme Court may soon have the opportunity to side with Americans, or they may choose to expand corporate rights to a level our forefathers never imagined. Stay tuned.

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