Farms, churches, towns stripped of rights
by Rob Roper
MONTPELIER – Senator Virginia Lyons (D-Chittenden) presented her resolution, JRS 11 – to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution for the States’ consideration which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States or any of its subdivisions, to the Senate Government Operations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
What was clear after some tough questioning, primarily from Senator Galbraith (D-Windham), is that Lyons does not understand the ramifications of what she’s doing, nor does she care. For her this is an entirely emotional issue, devoid of much if any rationality. She just wants somebody to do something.
At one point, after being confronted with a number of potential unintended consequences of her initiative, a frustrated Lyons responded, “Lookit. I’m not a lawyer and I am not – I don’t have the Constitutional expertise. I know what I read and I know what I’m learning about this, but I do feel very committed to this particular issue.”
Nevertheless, Lyons’ position had lots of company in the committee room. Testifying in favor of the resolution were Paul Burns, executive director for VPIRG. Wally Roberts of Common Cause, Anthony Iarrapino of the Conservation Law Foundation (testifying as a concerned citizen). Lyons referenced the support of Vermont Business for Social Responsibility. Senators White, Ayre, and Pollina, a majority on the five-member committee, were openly supportive of the legislation (Ayre and Pollina are co-sponosors), regardless of the potential damage done.
Senator Galbraith opened a line of questioning regarding churches. He posed, “So, you’re basically saying that Constitutional Rights — rights protected by the constitution that would include the first ten amendments plus the 14th amendment — do not extend to corporations, and are, in fact, the rights only of human beings. Is that correct?”
Lyons answered in the affirmative.
Of course, churches are not people they are associations. Under Lyons’ amendment churches would not have constitutional rights and, as Galbraith pointed out, “The state could regulate the conduct of a church or its religious doctrine that it might espouse as a church, but not the beliefs of the individuals.”
Galbraith went on, “Now, many Vermont farms are homes and businesses and organized as LLCs…. [P]erhaps you ought to clarify that Vermont farms that are LLCs should be protected from warrantless searches.”
Lyons: “Well, I certainly think that under the Vermont constitution and laws that we would have some flexibility with that.”
Galbraith: “But, if you had … a search under a federal law, for example, well, anything — an immigration violation suspected — right now you’d have to have to get a warrant whether it was a private property, a sole proprietorship, or an LLC. And, I guess I’m wondering weather you would agree if… in all instances would the 4th amendment still apply?”
Lyons: “I think that if we’re asking Congress to have to begin a Constitutional Amendment around the rights that individuals have under the Constitution, it doesn’t preclude Congress from passing laws or states from passing laws that regulate or de-regulate our farms as corporations.”
Galbraith: “I understand that. And so, what you’re in essence saying is that if your farm is an LLC, [following SJR 11] your immunity from unreasonable search and seizure would be a matter of law rather than a Constitutional right.”
Lyons: “Probably. Yeah.”
Senator Peg Flory (R-Rutland) raised similar concerns. “Every city and town in the state of Vermont is a corporate entity. Every school district – almost – are corporate entities…. I don’t see how this does anything other than create a whole lot of unintended consequences.”
Paul Burns of VPIRG agreed with Flory’s assessment, saying that, “Anything like this can come with unintended consequences,” but like Lyons he wasn’t too concerned with what they might be. The following is an exchange between Senator Galbraith and Burns:
Galbraith: “We’re playing around with the US Constitution…. I just want to be clear… you wouldn’t want to see an erosion of people’s current immunity from unreasonable search and seizure, including if it has to be an association, or a church or a union.
Burns: “Basically, I think that’s true. Again, since freedom of association and religion and others have their own protections under the First Amendment, I am less concerned than you, perhaps, that they will be jeopardized by this particular amendment.”
Galbraith: “Well, it does say that ‘rights protected by the Constitution of the United States do not extend to corporations.’ What this amendment does is take those rights away. So, you can’t say at the same time you’re protecting them, and at the same time take them away.”