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Hobby Lobby’s Obamacare challenge called landmark religious liberty casecomment (0)

March 27, 2014


Hobby Lobby’s Obamacare challenge called landmark religious liberty case

Once Steve Green sets his path, there’s no turning back.

Not when he and his high school girlfriend, Jackie, totaled their cars playing chicken. “No one turned off,” he said, recalling how he aimed right at her and she just kept coming. A year later, she married him.

Not when he saw no point in college, going directly into his family’s Hobby Lobby craft store business. Green, now 50, rose up from assembling picture frames for “bubble gum money” at age 7 through every job, including cleaning toilets, to president of the $3.3 billion national chain, one of the nation’s largest private companies.

And certainly not now, he said, when the U.S. government is challenging his unshakeable Christian faith and his religious liberty.

It was not surprising when Green’s path led straight up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to witness oral arguments in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius on March 25. 

That’s Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The department included all Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved forms of contraception among services required for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby has provided insurance with contraception coverage for years, paying for 16 of the FDA-approved forms, from barrier methods to pills that prevent fertilization. Not covered: intrauterine devices and morning-after pills such as Plan B. Those, the FDA acknowledges, could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Blocking implantation would “terminate life,” Green said. “We won’t pay for any abortive products. We believe life begins at conception. ... The government is forcing us to choose between following our faith and following the law. I say that’s a choice no American and no American business should have to make.”

While scores of faith-based organizations and private business owners have filed suit seeking exemption from the mandate, Hobby Lobby has become the standard-bearer for religious opposition. The potentially landmark case is a First Amendment battle testing that caused the court to lengthen oral argument time by 50 percent.

Supporters of the so-called contraception mandate fear that a victory for the plaintiffs could prompt businesses to flout any number of laws by claiming a violation of religious freedom.

They ask: What about a woman’s right to be covered for the full array of birth control options available through the Affordable Care Act? Is it really the company’s right to decide that the only drugs and medical procedures they’ll cover are the ones that conform to the owner’s personal faith?

Administration supporters also argue that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. claim religious rights the Constitution bestows on individuals, not corporations.

That’s not how the Greens and their supporters see it. To them, you can’t separate the family from the corporation, because the family runs the corporation according to its deeply held Christian values. Hobby Lobby, for example, closes its more than 600 stores on Sundays, pays employees far above the minimum wage and limits store hours so employees can spend more time with their families.

Following the March 25 oral arguments, the Supreme Court must decide two basic questions: 

First does Hobby Lobby, the corporation, have religious rights protected by the First Amendment?

Second if the corporation does have religious rights, have those rights been violated under a 20-year-old statute that sets a high bar for government interference when it comes to protecting religious freedom?

Jeff Mateer, senior counsel at the conservative Liberty Institute, said the question of a corporation’s religious rights is not a tough one.

“If the court determines that they do not have that right, it’s really going to change 200 years of legal precedent where we have assumed that corporations do have First Amendment rights,” he said. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United campaign finance case, in which the justices overturned bans on corporate political spending as a violation of freedom of speech.

If the court decides that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood do have religious rights, it would then have to turn its attention to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Congress passed it in 1993 to address concerns that the federal government needed to take greater pains to protect religious freedom.

If the government is going to tread on religious freedoms with a law such as the Affordable Care Act, RFRA requires the government to show a “compelling interest,” and that there is no less burdensome way to meet its goal.

That compelling interest test could be a hard one for the Obama administration to pass, legal scholars on both sides agree, since it has given out exemption after exemption to those who say they would have problems complying with one portion or another of the Affordable Care Act.

Churches that object to covering birth control, for example, have exemptions. So do the homeless, and people who can prove it would be a financial hardship to comply. “It’s hard to argue that you’ve got a compelling interest when you’ve exempted out so many people,” Mateer said.

Exemptions aside, medical and public health experts see a compelling government interest in ensuring women’s health through access to contraception.

Green is a Southern Baptist, grandson and nephew of Pentecostal pastors, a Sunday School teacher for decades and leader of a business that has declared its Christian principles from opening day. 

Their family foundation’s charitable gifts focus on gospel outreach efforts in the U.S. and abroad, contributing to the building of a dome for the Oklahoma State Capitol, and supporting social services such as the City Rescue Mission, a 640-bed homeless shelter in Oklahoma City.

Now the Greens’ family foundation is building a Bible museum five blocks southwest of the U.S. Capitol to house an unparalleled collection of rare and ancient Scripture manuscripts: 40,000 biblical texts, artifacts and antiquities, from the most ancient manuscripts in Jesus’ “household language” to Torah scrolls that survived the Holocaust.

It’s planned to open in 2017 and research to choose a name is underway. 

Just don’t expect to see “Green” in that name.

“Our hope is that the Bible is the hero of the museum, not me, or the Green family,” Green said recently in a phone interview from Egypt. He was traveling to Jerusalem and Rome as well to discuss possible exhibition partnerships (and take a side trip to climb Mount Sinai).

Lately it’s the Book of Daniel that comes often to his mind. In Chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would rather face a fiery furnace than bow to an idol at the command of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Green said, “They told the king ‘Our God is able to deliver us.’”

As he faced the white-hot spotlight of the Supreme Court case, Green said, “God has allowed us to take this stand. I don’t want to be presumptuous to say this is God’s will.”

If the ruling goes against Hobby Lobby, “I don’t know what we will do but I am sure what we will not do,” he said. He will say as the three men told the king, “Even if God does not deliver us, we still cannot do this” (Dan. 3:16–18).

(RNS, TAB)

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