Are corporations “persons” capable of “religious exercise?”

Posted by & filed under Civil Rights, Sixth Circuit.

Is a for-profit, secular corporation a “person” capable of “religious exercise?”

In this recent opinion from the Sixth Circuit on an issue of first impression, the Court said, “No.”
On first glance, this question may sound a little silly. But it isn’t silly to the Kennedy family. They own two companies named Autocam Corporation and Autocam Medical, LLC (collectively, “Autocam”) which make parts for the automotive and medical industries. Autocam has over 650 employees in the United States. The Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) requires Autocam’s health plan to cover, without cost-sharing, “[a]ll Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling” for female employees enrolled in the health plan.

Autocam and the Kennedys claim that compliance with this law will force them to violate the teachings of the Kennedys’ church, but failure to comply will result in steep fines against Autocam.
They sued and sought a preliminary injunction that would relieve Autocam of the duty under the ACA, claiming that the law violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. 2000bb. The Sixth Circuit explained that the Kennedys did not have standing, and so the Kennedys could not proceed with the case. But the Kennedy’s company, Autocam, does have standing.

So you get the picture. The Kennedys are not keen on being forced to indirectly support a law that they claim violates their religion. Religious belief is a protected status in America, through the RFRA. The RFRA makes laws which offend the freedom of religious belief subject to strict scrutiny.
To decide this case, the Sixth Circuit first had to decide whether Autocam was a “person” under the RFRA. They did this by referencing the “Dictionary Act,” which is a law that the Supreme Court uses to define terms when there aren’t definitions in law. According to the Dictionary Act, “unless the context indicates otherwise . . . the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.”

Looking at the relevant context, the Court concluded that “Congress did not intend to include corporations primarily organized for secular, profit-seeking purposes as “persons” under RFRA.” And the Court stated, “Congress did not intend to expand the scope of the Free Exercise Clause.” The Court then used a series of string citations to hammer the point: “We are not aware of any case. . . . in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.”
Finally, the Court mentioned Citizens United, but contrasted that case with this one, stating that “[this] case arose under the Free Speech Clause. No analogous body of precedent exists with regard to the rights of secular, for-profit corporations under the Free Exercise Clause prior to the enactment of RFRA.”

Altogether, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion is at odds with some of the other Circuits, and this is a question that the Supreme Court may feel inclined to take up in the future. (Perhaps the SCOTUS will hear this case, if Autocam and the Kennedys appeal?) Further, there is no binding case law on this topic.

One final question to consider: Would this case have been any different if the company were, instead of an automobile parts company, a for-profit Christian bookstore owned by a non-profit religious entity? Perhaps. 904 F. Supp. 2d 106 D.D.C. 2012

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