Several state religious leaders recently expressed their solidarity with Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City-based retailer's recent victory in its fight against a controversial federal mandate.
A U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order June 29 to prevent the federal government from enforcing a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that required Hobby Lobby to cover the cost of emergency contraceptives for the company's employees. The court order was preceded by a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on June 28 that recognized Hobby Lobby's right to sue to the government because of the religious objections of its owners, the Green family.
“We applaud the decision to recognize that Hobby Lobby Stores should be free to conduct business in a manner consistent with their values that protect life,” the Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said recently. “We will continue to stand with the Green family and others who are contending for life and religious liberty.”
Without the recent court orders, Hobby Lobby would have been subject to fines of up to $1.3 million for each day it refused to comply with the so-called contraception mandate. The company has said it would rather face the fines than cover the drugs, because its owners believe some types of emergency contraceptives, including the morning-after pill, are forms of abortion. A hearing is set for July 19 on the company's request for an injunction against the fines while the court case continues.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma, said he applauded the 10th Circuit Court's decision that Hobby Lobby is entitled to bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“The court is right to allow Hobby Lobby to persist in its case against the contraception mandate and to grant the Green family temporary relief from federal fines as the case continues,” Coakley said. “Under the U.S. Constitution, individuals have a right to allow religion to inform not just their private beliefs, but also their public actions, including the way they engage in business and commerce.
Coakley, as a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has voiced strong opposition to the contraception mandate since it was issued in January 2012 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The bishops opposed the mandate on the grounds that it violated their religious freedom, and other religious leaders and organizations across the country also expressed indignation over the measure. Last year, religious groups held rallies decrying the mandate. One such gathering for the Conference of Catholic Bishops' “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative was hosted by lay Catholics in Oklahoma City in June 2012 and attended by Christians of varying denominations including Assemblies of God, Baptist and Roman Catholic.
In line with the Catholic bishops' 2013 “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative, Coakley presided at a special Mass on June 21 in Oklahoma City to kickoff the campaign's 14 days of prayer and calls to action for religious freedom. The initiative ended Thursday.
Recently, Coakley said the Greens of Hobby Lobby care about their employees and their employees' welfare. He said requiring Hobby Lobby to pay fines as they seek relief from the health care mandate would unnessarily jeopardize the company's employees' jobs and their health.
“By staying those fines, the 10th Circuit judges have demonstrated their understanding of the good faith of the Green family and of the seriousness of this case against the contraception mandate,” Coakley said. “Government-mandated, employer-provided insurance that covers abortifacients is in no way essential to human flourishing — but religious liberty is.”
Meanwhile, some local community leaders said if Hobby Lobby's suit succeeds, the company will effectively discriminate against their employees' religious rights.
“They are infringing upon the religious rights of their employees who may want to take advantage of services they find acceptable but their employers find unacceptable,” said Nathaniel Batchelder, director of the Peace House in Oklahoma City.
The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, associate pastor of First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, said she thinks the furor over the contraception mandate could be avoided in the first place if employers are not responsible for their employees' health care.
“What if a Christian Science employer decided that they wouldn't fund things that are against their religion? If employers are able to use their own religious convictions for what their employees can or cannot receive, that's problematic,” she said.
National faith leaders speak out
Tuesday, an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress regarding the health care mandate's “threat to conscience” was released by Archbishop William E. Lori, of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and more than 100 prominent national religious leaders and scholars.
The religious leaders' letter, entitled “Standing Together for Religious Freedom,” calls for the Obama administration and Congress to respect the conscience rights and religious freedom of all employers.
The group wrote that freedom of religion goes beyond freedom of worship and extends to believers' roles as citizen and employer.
The letter calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to, “at a minimum, expand conscience protections under the mandate to cover any organization or individual that has religious or moral objections to covering, providing or enabling access to the mandated drugs and services.”
The signers of the letter represent a wide variety of religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Orthodox Christian and Jewish leaders, plus scholars and heads of faith-based institutions and civil rights organizations.