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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?


Jack VandenEnde


Jack VandenEnde commented…

Employers bear no responsibility for bad things employers do with their compensation. If medical insurance were simply considered non-monetary compensation, would this still be an issue?

Ashley Hall


Ashley Hall commented…

One more comment and I'll go away: A central question to all of this is the inherent "badness" of birth control, in that if you use birth control, you're promiscuous. Since it has been proven time and time again birth control is not abortive, the assumption right now seems to be that paying for birth control is paying for women to have sex (while men having sex seems to be perfectly okay). Many women use birth control within marriage relationships. Many more women use birth control for other purposes, such as acne or regulating dangerous periods. To assume birth control = promiscuity is incredibly sexist, and shows the clear double standard which exists with many in this country. We should check these assumptions before we enter the birth control conversation. I agree sex is best reserved for marriage, but it seems women bear far more of the brunt of this expectation than men do in the church.

Brian Capshaw


Brian Capshaw commented…

Wow! Scary time for our nation! I couldn't have more respect for Hobby Lobby and the stand they are taking. May God Bless their efforts...

Todd Tisch


Todd Tisch commented…

The problem with this whole ideology is that just because a company is required to offer does not mean the employee is obligated to take it.

It is like Starbucks mandating their stores sell tea. Just because they offer tea does not mean that I must get the tea.

If businesses truly value their employees as individuals then to require that they have the precise beliefs that the company as both is ignorant and flies in the face of equal employment

Kerry Cox


Kerry Cox commented…

If I give you $100 for your birthday, and you use the money to pay a prostitute or buy illegal drugs or buy a gun and shoot someone with it, have I sinned?

Is it possible for Hobby Lobby to comply with federal law, and essentially (or explicitly) say to their employees “We are providing this health care coverage in compliance with federal law and in good conscience that you, our employees, will use the coverage wisely and morally, in a matter befitting Christ.”

If someone at that point chooses to use the coverage for abortifacient drugs, I’m not sure that the Greens or anyone at Hobby Lobby has gone against their beliefs. Did God sin by providing the Tree of Life? He knew that it allowed man to choose sin, but he provided it anyway.

I don’t think God is keeping detailed accounts of where how money flows where sin is concerned. I think he cares more about the PERSON who is hurting than about any fiduciary claims. And I would hope that Hobby Lobby as a company would as well.

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