Can people “exercise religion” through publicly traded corporations?

July 12

In his most recent post in our debate over the Hobby Lobby decision, David Post suggests that it surely can’t be the case that a publicly traded corporation can “exercise religion”:

I take it that the “no reification” position applies equally to public corporations – imposing an obligation on McDonalds, Inc. is just imposing it on each of its owners. So McDonalds, Inc. too, is a “person” who can claim that its “exercise of religion” has been “substantially burdened” under RFRA, and – to use Ilya’s example above – McDonalds, Inc. can bring a RFRA claim (because it has Orthodox Jews among its shareholders).

The idea that people can exercise religion through publicly traded corporations is regarded as absurd by many other critics of Hobby Lobby, as well. But a little reflection suggests that it is not absurd at all. As David recognizes, publicly traded corporations can engage in the exercise of free speech and many other constitutional rights. If the majority of stockholders decide that a corporation should publicize speech on political or moral issues, then the corporation will engage in such speech on their behalf. Similarly, stockholders can use corporations to adhere to a variety of secular moral principles. Some corporations boycotted apartheid South Africa because of the stockholders’ moral abhorrence of racism. If people can and do use publicly traded corporations to speak out on political issues or adhere to secular moral principles, then the same goes for religious principles. For example, the majority stockholders of a firm may choose to adhere to Orthodox Jewish religious law, and therefore refuse to do business on the sabbath.

David is correct to suggest that a firm is not being used to exercise religion merely because it has some religious people among its stockholders. If those individuals are a minority or even a majority that fails to get its principles embedded in corporate policy, then they are not using the corporation to exercise their religion – just as a corporation that has only a minority of stockholders who wish to boycott racist regimes is not being used to express antiracist principles. But that is just to say that corporate property, like any other property, is only used to exercise a constitutional right when the legally required proportion of its owners choose to use it in that way.

David seems to draw a distinction between speech (which he recognizes can be exercised through a corporation), and religion (which he thinks cannot be), because speech is “an inherently public act,” while religion is not. I think that takes too narrow a view of religion. For many religious people, their faith is not just a purely private hobby. It is rather a set of moral principles that infuses every aspect of their lives, including their activities in the commercial world. If atheists like me can use publicly traded corporations to pursue secular moral principles, it is not difficult to see how religious people can do the exact same thing with their own beliefs.

None of this proves that publicly traded corporations should always prevail when they assert religious exemptions under RFRA or under the First Amendment. But it does show that they should not be categorically barred from making such claims.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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