Do corporations have a soul? And if so, does that corporate soul require, like individuals, the practice of religion? Anyone familiar with the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in the recent Hobby Lobby case knows that august body has answered these confounding moral questions with a resounding, “Yes!”
Even though I was well aware of our highest court’s affinity for granting corporations privileges most associate with real people -- this is, after, the gang who gave us Citizens United -- I must admit this was a shocker. The Court’s decision that for-profit corporations require legal accommodation for their religious beliefs seemed an act of feigned naiveté. Surely the justices recognize that corporations, unlike people, aren’t beholden to any particular moral code, that they are a legal construct existing for the express purpose of making money for their shareholders.
But perhaps I’m being too cynical. Maybe there are indeed many corporations out there that let the moral laws inherent in most religions guide their actions. In fact, let’s test this proposition. If the Supreme Court is right, then corporations should adhere to their religious principles even when it is not financially advantageous to do so.
We can do that by examining the behavior of one of Alaska’s favorite corporations: our second largest employer, Providence Health and Services. Founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Providence, though it’s been years since the sisters have been at the helm, Providence lists its mission as follows: “As People of Providence we reveal God’s love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through our compassionate service.” Unlike Hobby Lobby, Providence claims to be a nonprofit corporation. So there should be no reason why this particular organization should compromise its stated values over money, right?
On July 14, a patient care technician named Allen Miller was sentenced in the Anchorage Superior Court for molesting two young women, both of them teenagers, while they were patients at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Miller pled guilty to one count of attempted sexual abuse of a minor, but as part of his plea agreement, he had to admit that he had sexually abused both girls while he was supposed to be assisting in their care.
What does this have to do with Providence? The family of one of the victims, 14- year-old T.B., has filed a civil suit against Miller and Providence, the article reporting on the sentencing for the Alaska Dispatch News noted. This is hardly surprising -- companies are frequently sued for the misconduct of their employees. But the article revealed something else: Providence had decided to defend itself by alleging, among other claims, that T.B. -- the victim of the sexual abuse -- had contributed to her own injuries.
I checked the court file, and sure enough, there it was: “Plaintiffs’ damages, if any, are the result of their own negligent or intentional acts, or the negligent or intentional acts of other plaintiffs.” Translation: The 14-year-old with cystic fibrosis brought it on herself. Providence Health Systems, a corporation with $11 billion in net profits last year, is not simply defending itself by claiming it had no reasons to suspect its pediatric care employee would sexually abuse its patients. Instead, for good measure, this corporation has decided to protect its fortune with a little victim-shaming.
Responding to this revelation, a Providence spokesperson claimed that “this section of the document applies to other aspects of the plaintiffs’ complaint and not the abuse.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in the pleading filed by the corporation. Truth, it appears, is not necessarily a corporate value, especially where money is concerned.
Providence may claim a mission to aid the poor and vulnerable, but when its profits are threatened by a sexual assault victim, it is not above making assertions like this: “Plaintiff’s damages, if any, are the result of pre-existing conditions and not a result of any act alleged in their complaint.” In other words, a girl with a life-threatening disease whose trust is violated by those she turns to for care is simply too sick to be hurt by sexual abuse.
What would the Sisters of Providence say?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question. The Supreme Court didn’t put any requirements on the type of religious beliefs a corporation could hold or on the object of its worship. In fact, in its Hobby Lobby opinion, the court said, “(r)epeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine the plausibility of a religious claim.” Maybe the court has simply decided to recognize a new corporate evolution in religion: “A feast is made for laughter and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.”
Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide. Contact her at marcelle(at)alaskadispatch.com