Cover Story

Here they stand

"Here they stand" Continued...

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

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.”

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