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FIRST-PERSON: Religious freedom — at the cost of $1.3 million per day

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — It’s not theoretical any longer.

Hobby Lobby — a business owned by Christians seeking to run their company on biblical principles — is currently in jeopardy of government fines of $1.3 million PER DAY for its principled refusal to provide to employees contraceptive healthcare coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs.

I don’t know of a more obvious example of the endangerment of religious freedom in America than that faced by Hobby Lobby and all other businesses owned by those who stand for the sanctity of human life.

This threat has been growing ever since President Obama signed the 2010 health care reform bill into law. Yet, even with a flurry of lawsuits filed by various kinds of for-profit businesses owned by evangelical, Catholic and Mennonite believers and religious non-profits not exempted by the Obama administration’s onerous mandate, it seems many Christians are unaware or unconcerned about this matter.

As Baptist Press reported, Hobby Lobby will not compromise its beliefs and remains at risk for the exorbitant fines after losing several rounds in federal courts.

The threat faced by the Oklahoma-based company is very real, even though a number of other similarly situated for-profit businesses have received temporary judicial relief from the mandate required by the Obama administration’s implementation of the healthcare reform law.

Further, the threats to religious colleges — including Baptist schools — and other religious non-profits not included in the very narrow exemption permitted by the Department of Health and Human Services also remain, even after several promising rulings by federal courts.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, for example, ruled Dec. 18 the mandate cannot be enforced while it awaits the government’s promised re-write of the regulations that may address the concerns of religious non-profits. Still, there are no guarantees that the new regulations will in fact provide true religious freedom to such organizations.

Further, even if the new regulations are satisfactory for religious non-profits, undoubtedly they will not provide any protection to for-profit businesses with owners, like Hobby Lobby, who conscientiously object to providing morally objectionable “health care.”

Hobby Lobby is a national crafts retailer with more than 500 stores and more than 13,000 full-time employees. (The mandate applies to businesses with more than 50 employees.) It’s the largest business to challenge the Obamacare “birth control” mandate.

Hobby Lobby is widely known for its Christian convictions, which include running the family business according to biblical principles, not doing business on Sunday, employing Christian chaplains for its employees, and publishing advertising with Gospel messages during holiday seasons.

“It’s by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured,” said David Green, its founder. “Therefore, we seek to honor God by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.”

Because of those principles, Hobby Lobby will not provide coverage in its self-insured healthcare plan that includes abortion-inducing birth control. At some point this year — when its new plan begins — it apparently will be subject to fines of $1.3 million per day. (It was initially reported Hobby Lobby would be subject to the fines beginning Jan. 1, but the company has found a way to shift its plan year, thus postponing the beginning of the plan year. The company has not said publicly what the new date is.)

In November, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton in Oklahoma rejected Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit seeking protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Heaton said RFRA does not protect Hobby Lobby because a company is not a “person” under the law. He said the claim that businesses enjoy free exercise of religious rights is “uncharted waters.” The company also failed to get temporary relief from a court of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court while its case is pending.

The ruling against Hobby Lobby, however, is contrary to the results of lawsuits brought by nine other businesses that have won temporary reprieves from the mandate.

On Dec. 28, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago granted an emergency motion to Korte & Luitjohan Contractors, Inc., a family-owned construction business in Highland, Ill. The Korte family is Catholic and seeks to run its business according to its religious convictions, which include an objection to any kind of contraceptive drugs — abortion inducing or otherwise. On this point most evangelicals will not be in agreement with Catholics (on non-abortifacient drugs). Nevertheless, the principle of religious liberty demands that evangelicals defend Catholics against government requirements that violate their conscience.

Losing in the trial court an effort to block enforcement of the mandate, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed a motion with the Seventh Circuit seeking an injunction to stop application of the mandate while the Korte case is considered. The appeals court granted the motion.

Of particular note, the Seventh Circuit rejected the argument of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals against Hobby Lobby’s request for temporary relief.

“The religious-liberty violation at issue here inheres in the coerced coverage of contraception, abortifacients, sterilization, and related services, not — or perhaps more precisely, not only — in the later purchase or use of contraception or related services,” the Seventh Circuit ruled (emphasis in original).

ACLJ helpfully explains the “absurdity” of the Obama administration’s argument against the application of religious freedom to religious employers:

“Simply put, the injury to an employer’s religious beliefs occurs from the mandate forcing the employer, under pain of penalty, to arrange for and pay for insurance that provides drugs and services the employer deems immoral, whether or not those drugs and services are ever prescribed or used….

“According to the government, the mandate does not burden an employer’s religious beliefs because there are independent decisions that have to be made by the health care providers and the patients/employees before the drugs and services are ever used.

“In other words, the government argues that there is sufficient distance between the employer and the immoral acts to avoid a violation of the employer’s religious exercise rights.

“Under the government’s incorrect rationale, however, a governmental mandate, for example, requiring Catholic hospitals to provide ready access to surgical abortions would not substantially burden the religious exercise of those Catholic hospitals because any burden would be negated by the independent decisions of individuals seeking the abortion.

“The absurdity of this logic is obvious, as the Seventh Circuit recognized.

“Forcing an employer to pay for a health plan that includes what the employer believes are immoral drugs and services is the equivalent of forcing that employer to provide employees with coupons for those things paid for by the employer himself. There is nothing distant about that; the employer’s religious beliefs are violated in either circumstance.”

I last wrote about this deeply troubling issue in October, arguing President Obama should take a cue from Thomas Jefferson who said in 1779, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

As I said then, the situation is far worse than that contemplated by Jefferson more than two centuries ago.

The heath care law doesn’t merely violate consciences by using the coercive power of the state to tax for the propagation of opinions contrary to the religious convictions of pro-life citizens. Even if there were true exemptions for religious employers, the law’s framework provides for the inclusion of abortion-inducing drugs as “health care.” Without a true religious freedom-protecting exemption, the Obama “birth control” mandate makes employers complicit with their own private funds in the act of ending human life or preventing pregnancy, contrary to the deeply held religious opinions of these employers.

It is truly extraordinary that the Obama administration’s lock-step devotion to the Culture of Death would cause it to take such a stringent stance, coercing Americans to pay for with their own money that which they abhor. Sinful and tyrannical indeed.

The right to operate your business according to your deeply held religious convictions at the cost $1.3 million per day in government fines is not religious liberty. America’s Founders certainly never would have contemplated such a definition of freedom of conscience.

There are now 43 active lawsuits against the Obama mandate. This growing legal battle is one in which Christians should be actively engaged. We should pray — and work to make our concerns known — that God would grant success in this matter, either through new regulations, new law or legal victory that would result in full religious freedom.

Facing the very real threat of violation of religious conscience or economic ruin, we should also pray for and financially support Hobby Lobby and other businesses that are seeking to operate according to biblical principles that the impending, outrageous fines would not be realized and that their Christian testimony would impact many for the sake of the Gospel.
This column first appeared at the Florida Baptist Witness, online at gofbw.com. James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • James A. Smith Sr./Florida Baptist Witness