The Sovereignty of the Personal Conscience Is on Trial

The law seems, on one hand, to treat corporate entities as persons and on the other as some sort of lottery winner, with all sorts of tax benefits unavailable to real persons.

We live in a torn world—torn by our love/hate relationship with, among other things, corporations. Many of us loathe corporate America—indeed, international corporatism in general. However, we like making money on their stocks, and we like consistent products at relatively low prices. Many of us hate working for a corporation; however, we like corporate benefits, which are often far better than a smaller company is able to offer. Big is bad; big is better. Everything in life is a trade-off. 

Really? Is it that simple, or is there more at stake? A federal judge in Texas, Judge Brantley Starr, recently denied a motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit brought against Southwest Airlines and Transport Workers Union of America (TWUA) Local 556 by former flight attendant Charlene Carter. Judge Brantley will allow Carter’s religious discrimination lawsuit against the company and its union to proceed to trial. 

Carter is being represented by the National Right to Work Foundation (NRWF). NRWF’s President, Mark Mix, said, “The ruling rejects several attempts by Southwest and union officials to deny Ms. Carter’s right to bring this case in federal court and enforce her RLA-protected (Railway Labor Act) speech and association rights.”

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There’s been a lot of attention lately to the role that social media oligarchs are playing in censorship and the loss of free speech, but what about the free speech of those who work for America’s large corporations in general? Only 38.9 percent of Americans now work for companies who employ 100 or fewer people. Before 2014, the opposite was the case, with more of us living out our work lives with those smaller companies. 

NRWF’s Mark Mix makes the point that Judge Starr’s “decision acknowledges that, at its core, this case is about an individual worker’s right to object to how forced union dues and fees are spent by union officials to take positions that are completely contrary to the beliefs of many workers forced under the union’s so-called ‘representation,’” Sadly, what Mix alludes to is but the tip of a gigantic iceberg. 

This subject is not just about unions taking positions that run contrary to the philosophical, theological, or political leanings of their members; how about all of the machinations of corporate management and boards of directors who do exactly the same thing to stockholders? Buried, but unmistakable in this lawsuit, are the rights of the underlying sovereignty of the individual conscience. 

In 1996, while employed by Southwest, Charlene Carter became a member of TWUA. In 2013, she learned that her union dues were being spent to promote causes that, as a pro-life Christian, ran contrary to her religious beliefs, and she promptly quit the union; however, she was still required to pay union dues, as state-level right-to-work laws do not exempt airline and railway employees who fall under the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA). 

RLA does, however, protect an employee’s right to continue working as a nonmember of the union and to be critical of its leadership and to politic for change. Four years after discontinuing her membership, Carter would learn that union dues money had been used to compensate expenses for union officials to attend pro-abortion events. She took to social media to voice her outrage at members’ dues being used for things that went against her core beliefs and that of many union members. 

Long story short, her activism got her fired, and thus we have the current lawsuit. Of course, the firing had to come from the employer, Southwest, who is obviously complicit in this atrocity. Charlene Carter had a lot on the line: her employment and her right of conscience. How about us stockholders? What atrocities are being committed in our names? And how is that allowed by our government? 

The trend we are seeing, from a Catholic perspective, is deeply troubling. Subsidiarity, that fifty-dollar word for “small and local is better,” is a Catholic principle centered on the primacy of the human family in all civic affairs. A rapid tendency toward gargantuan corporations is, or should be, an obvious concern to Catholic sensibilities. And yet we have a pontificate that is more and more at home with partnering with these monstrous entities for “the greater good.” Of who or what, who can say? For the greater good of the family? Don’t hold your breath. Free speech? Small chance. Democracy? Nope.  

“Onions have layers; Ogres have layers,” Shrek informed Donkey. Ogres are, apparently, complex. Our once-simple government has become an ogre, adding layer upon layer of bureaucracy since its inception. Layers of complexity easily become layers of obfuscation—opportunities for corruption. 

And more and more we have corporations and labor union behemoths speaking, ostensibly, in the name of shareholders, members, and employees in the world of ethics and politics—if not by their words, by their actions and “charitable” giving. Add to this the less than perfectly-hidden connivance between government and the corporate world, between legislators and bureaucracy’s monarchs, and you have shadow government without the shadow—unashamed shysters in full view.

How does one defend giving special tax incentives to specifically named corporate or business entities? How does one square that with the equal protection clause of the Constitution? 

It can’t be done. New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took a lot of heat for standing up against Amazon when they wanted tax relief for bringing a distribution center to New York. Conservatives and progressives alike called her foolish and short-sighted, an ideologue without her constituents’ best interests in mind.

It will be argued that the Amazons of the world will just go and get a deal somewhere else (which they did) and that New Yorkers are worse off for AOC’s idealism. But that’s like every other argument in favor of taking a bribe: if you don’t, someone else will; either way, what’s going to happen is going to happen and you (or your constituents) will just be the poorer for it.

I have no interest in turning this into an article about taxation and even less interest in defending Ocasio-Cortez, who, if she had her constituents’ well-being at heart, would do something about New York’s wholly noncompetitive business climate. My point is simply that the law seems, on one hand, to treat corporate entities as persons and on the other as some sort of lottery winner. 

How, exactly, is it legal for a private entity to dangle a carrot in front of government to get tax relief? It is one thing for a company to say, “If you do away with or lower your business taxes, we’ll do such and such.” That would leave a level playing field—a field in which all interests are equally protected. It is quite another to say, “If you forgive this or that tax for us, we’ll do such and such.” The latter is simply unconstitutional and unethical. 

The aftermath of such special treatment is playing out in Florida, where Disney is now having to face the horrible fate of being treated like, well, everyone else. Can you imagine? The Magic Kingdom! And don’t even get me started about how Disney promotes a world view that is an abomination to many among their employees and shareholders. 

In American law, corporations, in most regards, have the rights of “persons.” The history of how that came to be is far too long to recount here, but suffice it to say that there is now little difference in the way the law treats the corporate entity and a human person.

So, which takes primacy, the personhood of the corporate entity, the personhood of the shareholder, the personhood of the board member, or the personhood of the employee? Though a labor union is not corporately chartered, and therefore technically does not have legal personhood status, considering that the lawsuit in question involves Southwest Airlines, Charlene Carter’s case seems to beg that question—whose rights prevail in this standoff? What is the natural conclusion of this legal insanity? 

Is a corporation a person or not? No one’s going to pass a law that gives Jerome German special rights. No law is going to specifically name me or you for tax relief. That would be an egregious affront to the equal protection clause of the Constitution. If a corporation is a legal person, why are these things done for them? Is buying influence just a matter of price? That would be nothing new, but how did bribery become the law of the land? 

Much of this boils down to the ages-old philosophical tension between the rights of the collective vs. the sovereignty of the individual. Everyone knows that neither a company nor an organization is a person, and increasingly treating them as legal persons is setting some very dangerous precedents. 

It is one thing to assert the right of a corporation to honor the religious beliefs of their shareholders, as was the case in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), allowing them to opt out of the immoral requirements of the [un]Affordable Health Care Act. It is an entirely different thing when the corporation, acting as a legal person, asserts its right as a person and gives money or credence to causes that are egregious to some of their shareholders, or uses their immense clout to turn elections their way, as though they somehow spoke for all of their shareholders and employees. 

The same goes, as it does in Carter’s suit, for unions. For years, we have had the spectacle of national teachers’ unions promoting legal abortion—apparently this stance fits well with their desire for reduced class size. Are we so naïve as to think that union leadership is accurately representing the beliefs of all their members? The legal precedents for treating corporations as persons are at least partly to blame for the situation in which Carter finds her personal sovereignty of conscience pitted against these massive, impersonal organizations. Horrible court decisions have horrible consequences, and we should be praying for Charlene—she is on a mission of justice, one of no small import for herself, us, and the world. 

On trial is the sovereignty of the person and the sovereignty of each and every conscience. Are we a nation of individuals governed by laws, or a faceless, mindless, totalitarian collective that has replaced our personhood with its own? 

I suspect that some will respond to this article with “what abouts”—“What about the sovereignty of conscience for those seeking abortions?” they will ask. I say that corporations should not misrepresent the consciences of their shareholders who seek abortions, or who want to rob banks, or who want to rape old ladies on subways. People should not assume to represent the consciences of others; but more to the point, corporations and organizations should not misrepresent the consciences of shareholders and members, either in their words or in their expenditures. A corporation is not a person and has no right of conscience. A labor union is not a person and has no right of conscience. Only a person is a person, born or unborn. 

And certainly, some misguided soul, unable to discern the difference between a faith community and any other organization, will make the case that the Church cannot speak for the conscience of the individual. It is true. After all, the Church is also not a person. The Church can only hope to follow the dictates of Christ—to speak in persona Christi, to point out what has been taught, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in His name and by His standards, consistently for thousands of years concerning the proper formation of conscience. It cannot speak for the recalcitrant sinner or the heretic, just as, reciprocally, it cannot allow them to represent the faithful by continuing in scandalous communion. 

If there was ever an issue that should be non-partisan, this is it; however, that is surely not the case. Indeed, one of the most popular options of our post-postmodernist present is the option not to develop our personal consciences: a Hegelian tendency to relegate that immense responsibility to the collective, to the omniscient intelligentsia. It is a yielding to the same worn-out modernism that gave us the murderous twentieth century and triggered the cynical post-modernist wasteland of the last five decades. The carpe diem mob represents the cusp of secular humanistic pomposity, leading humanity to seize the day, to be its own savior. May God have mercy.  

  • Jerome German

    Jerome German is a retired manufacturing engineer, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of a multitude. His parochial activities have included music ministry, faith formation, and spiritual direction/talks for men’s retreats. He contributes articles to Crisis Magazine and Catholic Stand.

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