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Opinion: Why the Hobby Lobby Hubbub Matters

Can the government require Christians to observe a business practice that compromises their faith practice?

“This is the way the world ends,” wrote American-English poet T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Buried somewhere in the top news stories of the day—“U.S. Marine Pens Response to Gun Control Bill,” “Cat Arrested at Brazil Prison,” “Father of India Gang Rape Victim Reveals His Daughter’s Name,” “Candlelight Vigil Planned in Boulder for Slain Bull Elk”—you might have read about Hobby Lobby.

No? That’s not surprising, since many of the major networks have remained largely silent on the issue. Yet this “whimper” of a story might be one of the most significant legislative decisions in our time. Lest you think I overstate my claim, let’s take a look at Hobby Lobby’s case and what’s actually at stake.

What’s at stake in this case is whether or not the government can force private business owners to act against their religious convictions.

As of today, the Green family, the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby Creative Centers and Mardel Christian Bookstores, potentially owes the federal government $21.3 million in fines for defying the HHS mandate that requires all companies to provide insurance coverage for all FDA-approved prescription contraceptive drugs and devices, surgical sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, including “the morning after pill” and “the week after pill.” According to the Greens, since these drugs interfere with implantation in the womb, they destroy human life in the earliest stage of development.

In September, the Greens filed a lawsuit against the federal government, stating, “These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith ... We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.” In addition to the lawsuit, they requested an injunction to defer the $1.3 million (approximately $100 for every employee) daily penalty while their case made its way through the courts.

On November 19, Judge Joe Heaton in Oklahoma denied the company an injunction, stating that Hobby Lobby and Mardel “are not religious organizations” according to the definition proposed in the mandate but are secular, for-profit businesses that employ and serve both Christians and non-Christians. The company appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and a panel of three judges denied the appeal for similar reasons. The company then took its request to the Supreme Court, where Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer also denied the request, stating it was not “indisputably clear” that the case met the requirements for an emergency injunction.

“Today, the government has tried to reinterpret the First Amendment from freedom to PRACTICE your religion, to a more narrow freedom to worship." —Rick Warren

The HHS mandate allows religious exemption if the organization meets the following criteria: (1) its primary purpose is to promote religious values; (2) it primarily employs persons of the same religion; (3) it primarily serves persons of the same religion; and (4) it is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

The underlying merits of the HHS mandate is not what’s at stake—that has yet to be determined. What’s at stake in this case is whether or not the government can force private business owners to act against their religious convictions.

If a privately owned company is paying for health care, should the federal government have a say in what is covered? There are three reasons why Christians and non-Christians alike should be concerned about the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case.

1. Let's define "religious."

The religious exemption proposed in the HHS mandate is so narrow that the vast majority of faith-based organizations—including Catholic hospitals, charities, colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations—fail to meet the criteria. In a post for Libertyblog, Dan Smyth argues that in order to avoid a breach of our first amendment rights, we must adhere to what the Founders would have understood to be a “religious” organization. According to Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the most widely used dictionary at the Constitution's ratification, Smyth says the Founders understood religious employers to be simply employers who, in any way, are disposed to religious duties or teach religion.

Further, Johnson defines “religious” as “pious; disposed to the duties of religion" and "teaching religion," with "to teach" taking such definitions as "to instruct; to inform" and "to deliver any doctrine or art, or words to be learned.”

Since the Greens are devoutly religious people who close their stores on Sundays, play Christian music in their stores and sell some religious-themed items, they would be classified as “religious” according to the understanding of the Founding Fathers. Redefining what is a “religious” organization results in a breach of First Amendment rights.

2. Whose responsibility is it?

Second, some critics claim, “No employers in the private sector have the legal right to force their employees to obey their employer's religious beliefs.” The Greens do not oppose their employees using emergency contraception; they just oppose paying for it. The Greens don’t oppose birth control or even their employees’ right to use emergency contraceptives like “the morning after pill”—they simply don’t want to implicate themselves in what they believe is morally wrong.

To force them to comply with this mandate interferes with the Green family’s right to practice their religion. As Rick Warren said, “Today, the government has tried to reinterpret the First Amendment from freedom to PRACTICE your religion, to a more narrow freedom to worship, which would limit your freedom to the hour a week you are at a house of worship.”

3. The timing matters.

Third, some will say that in the grand scheme of things, the cost of this legislative ruling is fairly low—it hardly matters. Whether the Greens eventually cave to the federal government or whether they pay all the way to their financial grave, it is, after all, just a single company. And besides, some may say, the matter of emergency contraceptives is morally ambiguous anyway.

But in most cases, freedoms have not been lost or won overnight. As James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” said, “There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpation.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not one agrees with the Greens convictions or not. You don’t have to be Christian to understand that this ruling is potentially a watershed moment in our nation’s history. If we, as a free republic, don’t stand now for the freedoms afforded us in our Constitution, who will be next?

69 Comments

Christel Bass Waller

1

Christel Bass Waller commented…

Companies who provide insurance choose not cover fertility issues, cosmetic surgeries, gastric bypass surgery for the morbidly obese, etc. so why can't they choose not to cover contraception as well. The government wants to dictate what is covered, what we believe, when & where we can speak about Jesus. It's time for the government to stop taking away our rights and it's time for Christians to speak out about our rights and the rights of what this country was founded upon - The Bible. It's time for Christians to rise up and speak loudly and protect our freedom of religion.

Ashley Hall

386

Ashley Hall replied to Christel Bass Waller's comment

The reason birth control is required is because preventative care will take down health care costs in the future. That's the same reason why I can now get free mammograms, Pap smears, etc. As I said before, to assume birth control is only used for promiscuity is sexist. Birth control is a vital health need for many women.

Also, none of the rights you mentions above are being taken away...anywhere. Certai "news" organizations may show a succession of stories which support this, but much of the time it is not the whole story, and the result is not a lessening of free speech in the first place.

campwebb12

29

campwebb12 commented…

Can I argue that I shouldn't pay the percent of taxes that go towards war, because I am morally against war? Because it seems like a similar argument, that the government is forcing me to pay money towards something that is against my religion, killing people.

Adam Willard

8

Adam Willard replied to campwebb12's comment

I didn't see this one when I wrote earlier, but I 100% agree! (As you'll see by my response below.)

Adam Willard

8

Adam Willard commented…

Personally, I think there is a bigger issue involved, a legal definition of terms: is everything a religious person touches or chooses considered "religious" or only things publicly declared (as in, 501c3, etc.) "religious"? For example, no one is telling the Greens that they have to pay for abortifacents with their own money (i.e. the money allocated to themselves as CEO pay or shareholder dividends or whatever), only that their publicly registered business (which has a lot of financial freedoms as a US for-profit company) has to pay for the costs of what they consider abortifacents for their employees. So that's part of the question: can any for-profit company be considered part of an individual's "religious exercise"? Is making a profit a religious exercise in any religion at all?

Obviously there are other Christian doctrinal issues at stake, such as m3gan's statement about "give to caesar what is caesar's". But that's hardly a legal question, and the Greens have the religious right to ignore that (or any) Bible verse as much as they have a right to believe certain forms of birth-control are abortifacents and equal to murder. The question is: ***whether they have the equal right and privilege to make a profit in accordance with the laws of a secular/pluralist society if they also want their profit-making enterprise to be exempted from those laws they disagree with based on religious reasons***. If they do have the right to legal exemptions on all religious issues of their personal choice, that would unfortunately allow a lot of other negative things in other situations. For-profit businesses, who happened to be owned/run by racists, could re-instate segregation in their buildings, or refuse business altogether to classes of people they didn't like (and that would include many private universities, they could refuse everyone but white people, as they used to do in the past). It would allow for-profit businesses to not pay for maternity leave or vacation for their employees if they chose because of the Bible verse "if you won't work, you won't eat." It would allow them to discriminate against hiring women, because of those who believe women's position in society should be domestic only. All of those are things that various people of different religious persuasions (even all different "Christian" ideas) actually believe in and have acted on in the past, and yet our country has decided to enact laws to protect against that sort of discrimination or to protect "workers' rights". Or to turn the table a little, if you were hired by a Muslim business-owner, he could forbid you to bring any pork-related products into your work environment. Or simply not hire you because you're not a Muslim. But currently, any Muslim in our country has to operate his business by the same business laws as any Christian, when they register a profit-making enterprise.

The truth is that now our legislators have decided to make a law whereby "workers' rights" in for-profit businesses are protected by having their healthcare needs met through employer-provided insurance. After a heated debate, they also decided that various forms of birth control and contraceptives (including those some Christians believe to be abortifacents) were part of necessary healthcare, in the form of insurance coverage. It's now a law. Just like a for-profit business can't discriminate against different races or women or maternity leave or whatever, they're now obligated to offer their employees a wide range of insurance-provided healthcare. That's one of the costs/considerations of earning a profit (and employing people) in the USA, and it was agreed upon by a majority of our government representatives. However, there are exceptions for those enterprises whose primary purpose is "religion", but not for those whose primary purpose is "profit".

A final statement: I'm a pacifist and I believe I have plenty of Biblical evidence, and a long history of Christian tradition, to back it up. If the Green family can be exempted from financial aspects of the law related to their vehicle for financial profit because of personal religious disagreements, then I should be exempted from the portion of my taxes which goes to pay for all State-sponsored forms of violence or threat of violence. I believe I'd be getting at least a 30% reduction in my federal taxes and still quite a large chunk of my local taxes (including a portion of my money gone towards sales tax).

The reality is simply that in a non-religious/pluralist society, where any goods, services, privileges or whatever are provided by the government (through any form of taxes), there will always be something paid for which the individual disagrees with on some moral or philosophical or even practical grounds. Meaning all of us who've ever paid a cent to the government (which includes any purchase in any state with sales tax) have partially funded something we disagree with, probably even disagree with religiously/morally, and we never had much of a say in the matter. But it's not anarchy here, it's a representative government. You hope you have the best representation. But at the end of the day, you take what you get and you deal with it, or you try to get a new representative and hope they change it, or you move somewhere else. We're all still free to move, if you can find a place that will welcome you.

Eric

2

Eric commented…

In the U.S. Hobby Lobby's ownership has the right to sue the government over this issue, but they are damaging our witness for Christ by making this a "defending the faith" issue. Christianity is about repentance of personal sin and trusting in Christ's atonement. It is about the body of believers, the Church, seeking to glorify God together. It is about spreading the good news of the forgiveness of sins through Christ. Christianity is NOT about fighting the government over earth "rights."

Having spent time as a missionary in an anit-Christian country, I've gained a broader perspective on which public battles are worth fighting. Should Hobby Lobby's ownership stand up for the rights the U.S. constitution gives them? Sometimes its appropriate. Often though, its more about us seeking to get what we think is due us (justice), than it is about the eternal glory of God. The apostle Paul encouraged us to give up our rights (citizen) has he did in order to advance the Gospel. So, lets ask: is this really about Hobby Lobby leading individuals to personal repentance and faith in Christ, or about a few very wealthy company owners, who have the resources to sue the government, what they think is due them?

Eric

2

Eric commented…

In the U.S. Hobby Lobby's ownership has the right to sue the government over this issue, but they are damaging our witness for Christ by making this a "defending the faith" issue. Christianity is about repentance of personal sin and trusting in Christ's atonement. It is about the body of believers, the Church, seeking to glorify God together. It is about spreading the good news of the forgiveness of sins through Christ. Christianity is NOT about fighting the government over earth "rights."

Having spent time as a missionary in an anit-Christian country, I've gained a broader perspective on which public battles are worth fighting. Should Hobby Lobby's ownership stand up for the rights the U.S. constitution gives them? Sometimes its appropriate. Often though, its more about us seeking to get what we think is due us (justice), than it is about the eternal glory of God. The apostle Paul encouraged us to give up our rights (citizen) has he did in order to advance the Gospel. So, lets ask: is this really about Hobby Lobby leading individuals to personal repentance and faith in Christ, or about a few very wealthy company owners, who have the resources to sue the government, what they think is due them?

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