Cover Story
Paul (left) and Chris Griesedieck on the shop floor of American Pulverizer in St. Louis
Sid Hastings/Genesis
Paul (left) and Chris Griesedieck on the shop floor of American Pulverizer in St. Louis

Here they stand

Religious Liberty | Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate forces businesses to cover abortion-inducing drugs for employees. It has sent several evangelical and Catholic business owners to court to fight for their religious liberty—with varying degrees of success

Issue: "Taking a scalpel to the First Amendment," Feb. 9, 2013

ST. LOUIS—Chris and Paul Griesedieck know how to crush just about anything.

The brothers and owners of American Pulverizer in St. Louis run the company their great-grandfather started nearly 105 years ago to compress coal for the burgeoning coal mining industry. A century later, the Griesediecks and 150 employees manufacture massive machines with names like jaw crushers and hammermills that pulverize everything from iron clips and water heaters to car engines and wooden pallets. And they still crush plenty of coal.

But these days, the crushers worry about being crushed. The looming threat to the family business doesn’t come from competition. Instead, it comes from the machinery of the federal government.

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That’s because the government says the Griesediecks must do something that violates their Christian beliefs: Pay for so-called “emergency contraception” in their health insurance plan for employees. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the mandate last year as part of the healthcare bill President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. 

The healthcare law requires employers with more than 50 full-time workers to provide insurance to their employees or face fines. The HHS mandate requires employers to provide a range of “preventative services” in those insurance plans, including birth control pills, sterilization, and “emergency contraception” that may act as abortifacients.

Companies that don’t offer the drugs face crushing fines: $100 a day per employee. For the Griesediecks and their 150 workers, those fines could soar to over $5 million a year. 

For a company with 13,000 employees like craft retailer Hobby Lobby—another Christian-owned corporation opposing the mandate—the burden is even heavier: Fines could reach $1.3 million a day.

Like Hobby Lobby and other plaintiffs, the Griesediecks filed a lawsuit against HHS. They say the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law designed to protect against government infringement of religious freedom) and their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. The brothers made a simple argument based on Christian principles: “It would be sinful for us to pay for services that have a significant risk of causing the death of embryonic lives.”

The government doesn’t have much sympathy. In a slew of similar cases filed by for-profit companies against the HHS mandate, government attorneys have argued that for-profit, secular companies don’t engage in any exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment.

Frank Manion—an attorney at the American Center for Law and Justice—represents the Griesediecks, and says the federal government is imposing a stark choice on his clients and all Christian employers who oppose the mandate: “Abandon their beliefs in order to stay in business, or abandon their business in order to stay true to their beliefs.”

At least 14 for-profit companies have filed suit against HHS, saying the mandate violates their religious freedom. Courts have granted preliminary injunctions to nine of those companies—including the Griesediecks—shielding them against the mandate as their cases continue through the courts. Other judges denied similar protections to Hobby Lobby and four other companies.

Though only a handful of for-profit companies have filed suit, the mandate applies to all employers providing insurance. That means potentially thousands of companies owned by Christians may grapple with the law’s requirements. 

So far, most of the for-profit companies filing suit are Catholic-owned and opposed to providing any of the services in the mandate, including birth control pills. Evangelicals own at least four of the companies, and don’t oppose offering birth control, but refuse to pay for “emergency contraception” like the “morning-after” and “week-after” pills. 

For both groups, the implications are huge: Will the government allow business owners the basic freedom to maintain Christian principles in the workplace? 

For the thousands of middle-class employees working for such companies, another question arises: Will the federal government crush their jobs by crushing their employers?

Matt Bowman of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—a group representing several plaintiffs—says the issue is likely headed to the Supreme Court, and the outcome could affect religious freedoms for all Christians who believe their faith extends to every area of life: “The question becomes: Is Jesus Christ the Lord of all human life or not? And the federal government is saying He isn’t allowed to be.”

For the owners of Christian companies embroiled in one of the country’s most important religious liberty issues of the new century, faith isn’t an activity the government can sequester to Sundays. “You have to practice what you preach,” says Paul Griesedieck. “And you have to live your belief seven days a week.”

That may seem like an obvious tenet of Christianity, but the plight of Christian-owned, for-profit companies is underscored by another reality: The government is oppressing non-profit religious institutions as well.

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