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?


Vanessa Lee Knutsen


Vanessa Lee Knutsen commented…

Why..when our gov. wishes to change longstanding precedent...do we just go along?

Why do some so QUICKLY accept this gov's action as "New Gospel"?



Alicia commented…

I am fiercely pro-life in my beliefs, but I believe this is not being approached in the right way. The Green's own a company, not a church or non-profit, and they should follow the law. "Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow." Romans 13:1-2. The Greens may do better to start a campaign to have the mandate changed, rather than outrightly disobeying it.

Jonathan B. Ladd


Jonathan B. Ladd replied to Alicia's comment

By your logic, those Germans who helped Jews escape the Nazis were "in defiance of God." Here's an idea: screw the government. They are wrong, and it's that simple. And so are you.



m3gan commented…

This piece is alarmist. The law requires that INSURANCE cover these contraceptive tools that are for the benefit of society. If the law required that people USE these devices, then it would be overstepping. The Greens have it backwards. They should be give to Caeser what is Caesers, while encouraging their employees to trust God's plan for their wombs so their insurance coverage isn't necessary. Their focus on the technicality of the law rather than the wellbeing of people is where the problem lies.

Andy Vanasse


Andy Vanasse replied to Kevin Davis's comment

Sorry, folks. The first amendment of the Constitution prohibits CONGRESS from enacting any laws that prohibit the free exercise of an INDIVIDUAL's religion. Each individual corporate officer (the Green's) should be able to exempt from the law if he or she finds contraceptives, particularly abortifacients, to violate the exercise of his or her religious liberty. Moreover, recent Supreme Court decisions have ruled that corporations should be construed as "individuals" under the law. As such, the Hobby Lobby corporation, via its officers, has a reasonable claim that any requirement to support abortifacients violates it's religious liberty.

Suggesting that "it's only insurance" is recklessly reductionist. The company is required to FACILITATE the use of abortifacients. To say otherwise is to naively suggest that the money sent in support of such insurance policies is only used to support the company that sent the payment. That's hardly the case. The money is used to defray the costs of ALL procedures under the provisions by ALL individuals covered by the company. The only role the company itself plays is obtaining a particular rate for those covered. As such it's a violation of conscience whether or not it's actually exercised by any employee.

What I find all to often confused is that the liberty for an individual to engage in a particular activity is construed as a "mandate" for others to support or endorse it. Not so. You can practice your right to abortifacients with or without my support; we differ only as to whether or not I or any other entity should be REQUIRED to facilitate it. I should not be required to support your free choice to use abortifacients any more than you should be required to facilitate my desire to legally carry a concealed weapon.

Jon Carpenter


Jon Carpenter replied to Andy Vanasse's comment

Your statement is the sanest argument on this entire page and that includes the main article. Thank you for arguing logically and not stating an opinion that is really just regurgitated drivel. Her first point is not sound.
We shouldn't have to pay for other people's choices but we do have to allow other people the ability to make a choice and that is where the benefits get tricky. I know women you need birth control for other health reasons then preventing birth.

Maria Baer


Maria Baer commented…

Thank you for this article. I'm so alarmed by commenters talking about following the law and "giving to Caesar"... if the government said slavery was legal, does that mean it's moral? If the government said we should all worship a golden calf should we do it? These are hyperboles but it's absurd to simplify this situation to a "let's all follow the law" stance. The law ITSELF is what's being questioned; not whether we should obey it.

The issue is whether they have to pay for it. They shouldn't. That's the end of the story.

Colin M. Steinke


Colin M. Steinke commented…

However the business may have religious connection or undertone, it is by no means a religious institution. It employs, I'm sure, both Christian and Non-Christian employees. And if not, we have other issues here.

Just because a business owner has beliefs and closes a store on Sunday does not exempt them from following the laws of the government.

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