Hobby Lobby is the 94th largest corporation in America. It is owned by David Green, described by Forbes as “the largest single donor to Evangelical causes in America”. Half of the company’s annual revenue – more than $4 billion in 2016 – is allocated to Protestant ministry, including a new Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.
Hobby Lobby fought a high-profile lawsuit against the Obama administration, which required companies to cover the cost of their employees’ contraceptives. Green claimed this was a violation of his conscience and sued for an exemption from the mandate. This fitted a well-worn liberal media narrative: wealthy Evangelicals “imposing their values” on working-class women.
In fact, Green was just one of dozens of executives who sued over the mandate. Many were Catholic, including Philip and Frank Gilardi of Freshway Foods. The brothers are active in their local parish and slap pro-life bumper stickers on all company trucks. As they wrote in their complaint, they “conduct their businesses in a manner that does not violate their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral values, and they wish to continue to do so”. That means not being forced to pay for their workers’ abortifacients.
This is not a new fight, and it is not just about individual business owners. There has always been some ambiguity about whether Catholic providers of social services have the luxury of remaining faithful to Church teaching. Selling picture frames and organic tomatoes is one thing. But with housing, medicine and education, the lines start to blur. Where does religious freedom end and duty to the public good begin?
Such was the case with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run 31 homes for the elderly across the United States. As a “non-church” religious institution, they were not exempted from the Obamacare mandate. So they, too, sued the government – and won.
Catholic hospitals are frequent targets for lawsuits. They are also broad targets: 15 per cent of all American hospitals are affiliated with the Church. The most notorious case involved Trinity Health Corporation, which owns 81 hospitals in 21 states. In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Trinity for refusing to perform abortions on demand; their physicians only terminate a pregnancy as an unavoidable consequence of delivering life-saving care to the mother. The ACLU claimed that there were “grave implications for the many pregnant women and their loved ones who remain at risk of being turned away by hospitals where religious leaders are playing doctor”. But the case was dismissed.
And Catholic schools are taking heat from the new transgender rights movement. Mount Saint Charles Academy in Rhode Island forbids biological males from using female bathrooms. But, after a protracted campaign by LGBT activists and left-wing media outlets, the school announced it was prepared to “provide reasonable accommodations for transgender students”.
The Little Sisters, Trinity Health Corporation and Mount Saint Charles are private entities, just like Hobby Lobby. The difference is that they have a higher purpose than merely turning a profit. That higher purpose is inspired by the Catholic Church – the same Church that condemns contraception, abortion, and “gender ideology”, as the Pope calls it.
That’s why the religious freedom debate in America cannot be reduced to a caricature of compassionate liberals versus Bible-bashing Evangelicals. It’s not just about the rights of individual executives. It’s also about the Church’s right to carry out her mission – to care for the elderly, heal the sick and educate children. Secularist ideologues would force it to choose between that mission and compromising her principles. Either way, America loses.
Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor
This article first appeared in the December 8th 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here