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.
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.
A narrow exception to the HHS mandate applies mostly to churches, freeing them from the requirement. But for other non-profit religious employers—like Christian colleges and Catholic hospitals—the mandate still applies with a deadline of August 2013 to comply.
More than 80 such organizations have filed suit against HHS, and at least two have made significant progress: In December, a federal appeals court reinstated the lawsuits of the evangelical Wheaton College and the Catholic-based Belmont Abbey College—both represented by the religious liberty firm Becket Fund. (Courts had dismissed the lawsuits in August, saying the litigation was premature.)
HHS attorneys said the government intended to issue a new exception that would protect colleges like Wheaton and Belmont Abbey, but judges demanded action: HHS must update the court every 60 days until it publishes a new exception for religious institutions. The government said it would propose new language by the end of March. For now, it’s unclear how far a new exception might reach.
While the decision was a victory for religious non-profits, it offers no protection to owners of for-profit companies with similar religious convictions. For them, the mandate applies now unless they win a court injunction. And exceptions aren’t on the horizon.
That has led more than 14 for-profit companies to file suit, including four owned by evangelicals. One of those companies—Tyndale House Publishers—is a for-profit corporation, but clearly religious in nature: The evangelical company publishes Bibles and Christian books. (And the company directs most of its profits to non-profit causes.)
ADF attorney Matt Bowman won a preliminary injunction on Tyndale’s behalf in November, and said: “Bible publishers should be free to do business according to the book that they publish.” The court agreed in its written opinion: “… the beliefs of Tyndale and its owners are indistinguishable.”
The same reality seems obvious for other evangelical-owned companies as well. Perhaps the highest-profile case is Hobby Lobby—the massive craft retailer with 520 stores in 41 states. The Oklahoma-based company averages $3 billion in sales each year, according to Forbes, and owner and CEO David Green ranks No. 79 on the magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans. The publication estimates Green’s net worth at $4.5 billion. It also notes Green’s vast giving to Christian ministries like the OneHope Foundation and Every Home for Christ, and estimates his lifetime giving at $500 million.
Indeed, Hobby Lobby’s website says the company is committed to “honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.”
To that end, the stores close on Sundays so employees may rest and participate in worship. The company publishes full-page ads in newspapers at Christmas and Easter with Christian messages. And it starts its pay for full-time employees at 80 percent above minimum wage. Green says it would violate his Christian beliefs to pay for “emergency contraception” that could cause abortions. The company filed suit against HHS in September.
The government contends the required “emergency contraception” drugs aren’t abortifacients. But the FDA label on the morning-after pill known as “Plan B” notes the drug “may inhibit implantation” of a fertilized egg.
Since pro-life proponents define fertilization of an egg as the beginning of a pregnancy, they label “Plan B” and Ella—a similar drug that can be effective five days after unprotected sex—as abortifacients. The law also requires coverage of intrauterine devices (IUDs) that may block implantation of fertilized eggs. (See “Mandated drugs” sidebar at the end of this article.)
Meanwhile, Plan B is available over the counter, and many county health clinics and Planned Parenthood offices offer emergency contraception at no cost, low cost, or on a sliding scale depending on income.
Despite the threat that the IRS would levy massive fines (up to $1.3 million a day) for non-compliance, Green said the company wouldn’t offer the drugs: “We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.”
Less than three months later, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton denied Hobby Lobby’s request for a preliminary injunction, and the Supreme Court refused to provide an emergency stay as the case proceeds through the lower courts.
In his ruling, Heaton said Hobby Lobby and its sister company Mardel—a Christian publishing house—are “not religious organizations.” The judge said the court had not found a case establishing that “secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”
That argument may prove the central issue in each of the for-profit cases, and will likely culminate with the Supreme Court ruling on whether for-profit companies have the right to free exercise of religion. Considering the court’s decision in Citizens United that companies have a right to free speech, many attorneys say First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion should be implicit.
For now, Hobby Lobby announced it has found a way to “shift the plan year” for its insurance coverage, shielding the company from fines for a few months. (The fines are effective when a company renews its insurance plan, though it’s unclear how and when the IRS would levy the fees.)
Still, the threat remains for Green and the thousands of middle-class workers he employees in a struggling economy. Though the CEO is declining interviews while his case proceeds, in a USA Today opinion piece in September he wrote about his convictions: “… honoring God is more important than turning a profit.”
Charles Sharpe agrees.
On a cold morning in northeast Missouri, the president of Sharpe Holdings sits behind a small table in a simple office talking about his own lawsuit against the government mandate.
The 85-year-old CEO has made millions in an insurance business he still owns, but he’s also spent millions to run a ministry he founded here in this rural area nearly three hours north of St. Louis.
Sharpe founded Heartland Ministries in 1992 to provide a Christian rehabilitation program for men and women battling drug and alcohol addiction, and a boarding school for troubled youth.
The programs revolve around discipleship, Bible studies, and work in the for-profit farm that Sharpe runs on 17,000 acres of land. More than 170 employees work in a series of for-profit enterprises, including the farm’s dairy and creamery that distributes milk and cheese to hundreds of companies around the region.
Sharpe uses the profits from the farm (along with profits from his insurance company) to maintain the land and the ministry. In addition to salary and housing, benefits for full-time employees include a health insurance plan.
When Sharpe learned the HHS mandate required him to provide “emergency contraception,” the longtime evangelical balked. “We’re not going to do that,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
Like some other employers, Sharpe was surprised to learn his insurance plan already covered some of the drugs. But he also learned he couldn’t drop the abortifacients without incurring steep fines that could cost him millions.
Sharpe filed suit against HHS in December, and won a temporary restraining order against the mandate on Dec. 31—one day before his coverage was set to renew. (St. Louis attorney Timothy Belz represents Sharpe, and is the brother of WORLD founder Joel Belz.)
Sharpe was encouraged by the win, but he knows a long battle lies ahead. If he loses, his options are limited. Though employers can drop insurance plans completely and pay a fine of $2,000 a year per employee, Sharpe and other for-profit business owners say they want to provide insurance for their workers.
If Sharpe keeps the insurance, but tries to drop the emergency contraception, he’d incur potential fines in the millions. “That would shut the place down,” he says. “And that would be a catastrophe for the people we help.”
Judi Schaefer is one of those people. The 40-year-old mother of two moved to the area after her husband entered the rehab program nearly six years ago. Sadly, her husband left his family a little over a year ago. These days, Schaefer relies on her job at the farm’s lodge and steakhouse to support her 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
Losing her livelihood would be “devastating,” she says, and losing her health insurance would be a huge burden.
But Schaefer also believes in Sharpe’s cause, and she joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff, saying the HHS mandate violated her religious beliefs too. Schaefer believes “emergency contraception” may cause abortions, even at the earliest stages of pregnancy.
“Someone has to stand up and say there is something wrong with being a little bit involved,” she says. “The Bible says it’s the little foxes that spoil the vines.”
Sharpe hopes the foxes won’t spoil the vine of his business and ministry. And he’s baffled by the government’s argument that Christian business owners don’t have religious freedom protection in how they operate their companies. “A lot of people say you go to church on Sunday, and on Monday it’s business as usual,” he says. “But our business as usual on Monday is exactly the same as it is on Sunday.”
Back in St. Louis, the unassuming Griesedieck brothers make the same case. Though they don’t print Bible verses on their website or publicize their personal giving to Christian causes, they say they’re committed Christians who run their business according to biblical principles. “As evangelical Christians we believe that God is the author of life, and we shouldn’t be taking life,” Chris says of the abortifacient mandate. “That’s what we honestly believe.”
They learned those principles growing up in Covenant Presbyterian Church—a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Paul still attends Covenant. Chris attends Kirk of the Hills, another PCA congregation in town.
They learned the family business by spending summers working in the warehouse, purchasing department, and administrative offices to learn all aspects of the company. And they say they want to continue operating the company according to Christian principles.
That means treating customers fairly and employees generously. They say dropping insurance coverage and paying a fine isn’t a desirable option for a family that believes benefits are an important part of a fair compensation package. They also point out dropping insurance would make it hard to compete for workers with businesses that do offer benefits. And the group Alliance Defending Freedom emphasizes that dropping insurance isn’t a quick fix—the law allows the government to sue employers in some cases.
Like most other companies, the Griesediecks say dropping emergency contraception from their plan and facing overwhelming fines of $100 per employee per day also isn’t a financially viable option for the company.
For now, they have a reprieve. A federal judge in Springfield, Mo., awarded the Griesediecks’ four companies a preliminary injunction in December that shields them from fines as their case proceeds.
Like judges in other cases, Judge Richard Dorr questioned the notion that an individual running a business entity doesn’t have religious protection: “Does an individual’s choice to run his business as one of these entities strip that individual of his right to exercise his religious belief?” Dorr also found “a substantial likelihood” that the Griesediecks will be able to prove the mandate “substantially burdens Plaintiffs’ exercise of free religion.”
Frank Manion—the brothers’ attorney who is also representing a handful of other plaintiffs—is encouraged by the ruling, and by nine out of 14 judges offering temporary injunctions so far.
He says anyone concerned about religious liberty should follow the cases closely: “What’s at stake is the first liberty protected by the Bill of Rights. … And if we don’t protect that, just think of what it means for the rest of the Constitution.”
By mid-January courts had granted injunctions to nine for-profit companies objecting to the HHS mandate. Courts denied injunctions in five cases. Most companies are Catholic-owned. Conestoga Wood Specialties is owned by Mennonites. Companies owned by evangelicals are in italics.
• Korte & Luitjohan Contractors
• O’Brien Industrial Holdings
• Hercules Industries
• Tyndale House
• American Pulverizer
• Domino’s Farms
• Sharpe Holdings
• Triune Health Group
• Hobby Lobby
• Autocam Corp
• Grote Industries
• Annex Medical
• Conestoga Wood Specialties
While a handful of for-profit companies owned by evangelicals have filed suit against the HHS mandate, most haven’t. Some may already provide coverage of emergency contraceptives (including those that cause abortions) to their employees, and some may be waiting to see how cases like Hobby Lobby’s resolve.
Truett Cathy and son Dan Cathy, the evangelical founders and leaders of Chick-fil-A, endured heavy flack for their support of biblical marriage last year, but they haven’t been as public about their views on emergency contraceptives or abortion.
I asked Chick-fil-A’s spokesman whether the company provides contraceptives for its employees, and whether the Cathy family opposed the HHS mandate. The spokesman declined to comment. A Chick-fil-A employee said the health insurance policies differ from franchise to franchise. But it’s unclear whether Chick-fil-A’s corporate policy covers emergency contraceptives or drugs that cause abortions.
Another evangelical-led chicken company, Tyson’s Food, describes itself as “faith-friendly” and lists among its company goals “to honor God.” Tyson’s recently launched the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the University of Arkansas. Tyson’s Food spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company already covers contraceptives for its employees. He didn’t respond when asked whether that coverage was for all FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients Plan B and Ella.
A spokeswoman for Interstate Batteries, another evangelical-owned business, didn’t answer questions about the HHS mandate and the company’s contraceptive coverage. “Interstate Batteries is privately held and doesn’t take positions as a company on public issues,” wrote spokeswoman Carrie Clark. “We respect the rights and personal beliefs of our employees and customers.”
ServiceMaster, another evangelical-led business, did not respond to a request for comment. And no one answered at the corporate press office for Forever 21, a clothing retail company that is Christian-owned. —Emily Belz
The Affordable Care Act requires health insurance plans to provide women, without a copayment, any form of birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed by a doctor. FDA-approved contraceptives include barrier methods like female condoms and caps (though some don’t need prescriptions) in addition to hormonal methods.
Pro-life proponents use the term “abortifacient” to refer to birth control methods that cause the death of a baby, only days old, by preventing the embryo from implanting in the wall of the uterus. They reserve the term “contraceptive” for methods that block sperm from fertilizing an egg. The distinction is important because many Protestants oppose abortion but not contraception. (The Roman Catholic Church officially opposes all forms of artificial birth control.)
Neatly categorizing the birth control options into abortifacient and nonabortifacient camps is difficult, however. Pro-life doctors disagree about whether hormonal birth control merely prevents fertilization or also causes changes to the womb that make it inhospitable for a newly fertilized embryo. Current scientific research is too inconclusive to resolve the debate.
Most hormonal birth control methods release progestin, or a combination of progestin and estrogen. These hormones can prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg, and thicken cervical mucus to inhibit sperm, but they may alter the lining of the uterus as well. “The pill,” skin patches, birth control shots, implant rods, and hormonal contraceptive rings all work this way.
“Emergency contraceptive” pills (sometimes called morning-after pills), taken within a few days after sex, are also hormonal methods: Plan B One-Step contains a large dose of progestin, the same ingredient as traditional birth control pills, and works the same way. But the FDA label warns that the drug “may inhibit implantation”—although some scientists protest that there’s insufficient evidence it does so. Citing the FDA warning, the pro-life movement has consistently treated Plan B and Ella (another emergency contraceptive drug with a similar effect) as abortifacients.
The healthcare law also covers intrauterine devices (IUDs) and female sterilization procedures. T-shaped IUDs, lodged in the womb, prevent sperm from reaching an egg but can also act as abortifacients by blocking implantation. Sterilization, which permanently blocks the fallopian tubes, ensures sperm and egg never meet.—Daniel James Devine
Our report on what Christian companies are doing about the HHS mandate that requires employers to provide emergency contraceptives for employees naturally raises questions about what our own company is doing.
Though WORLD is part of a non-profit organization dedicated to producing Christian content, the company doesn’t fit the narrow exemption currently published by HHS. We’re eager to see what the agency’s new exemption language will include.
For now, the timing of WORLD’s insurance plan renewal allowed the company to avoid offering abortifacient coverage for employees. (WORLD worked to change plans after discovering our former coverage included such drugs.) But unless HHS broadens its exemptions—or the courts decide otherwise—WORLD will likely face the coverage dilemma in the coming year.
WORLD CEO Kevin Martin says he hopes for new provisions that will give the company relief, but “I ultimately worry whether there will be any way to provide insurance that doesn’t require payment for abortifacient drugs.”
Dropping insurance would be a substantial burden on employees, and would cost the company and its workers thousands of dollars a year, he says: “We’re waiting to see, and we’re hoping and praying that something changes.” —J.D.