Half-baked corporate religion decision

 
Updated 6/25/2018 10:35 AM

When the Supreme Court released its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, it launched a media frenzy. Conservatives crowed about a victory for religious freedom, while progressives pointed out that the limited ruling left anti-discrimination laws intact and created no exception for bigoted beliefs. This stale debate misses an obvious problem -- the court's seemingly unthinking endorsement of corporate religion. Without any discussion, this ruling unsettled well-established corporate legal norms by affording a corporate entity the same religious freedoms our constitution promises humans.

The court's critical error comes from conflating the for-profit corporate bakery with the baker who owns shares in the bakery. When Colorado moved to enforce its anti-discrimination laws, it moved against a Colorado corporation. When Colorado grants a corporate charter to a company, it creates a separate and distinct legal entity from its owners. A Colorado corporation can therefore conduct business without shareholders fearing their personal assets will be seized if things go wrong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This decision baffles corporate law scholars because when the bakery discriminated against gay patrons seeking a wedding cake, the corporation violated Colorado law. The beliefs of Jack Phillips, the bakery's owner, should be irrelevant.

This unprecedented decision by the court essentially extends an individual's right to express religious beliefs to a corporate entity. The decision also undermines the bargain Colorado struck when it determined humans can separate themselves personally from the legal blunders of their company.

Corporations don't breathe, and they can't sit next to you in the pew at church. A corporation can't dab itself with holy water, because it does not actually exist. The bakery is not a church or a Baptist bookstore. It has no religious mission, and this special exception collapses the distinction between a corporation and its shareholders entirely.

Carliss Chatman, Assistant Professor, NIU College of Law

Benjamin P. Edwards, Associate Professor, UNLV School of Law

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