Let’s Be Frank (O’Brien)
A court offers temporary conscience relief.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

‘In essence, if you are Catholic in this country, you no longer can own a company,” Frank O’Brien explains.

O’Brien, a St. Louis refractory distributor, is one of more than 40 plaintiffs in a suit against the federal Department of Health and Human Services over its mandate requiring employers to provide workers with insurance that covers contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. This controversial Obamacare regulation threatens the religious liberty not only of Catholics trying to live according to their faith but also of evangelicals and others who object to any of these policies.

“By means of this law, the Obama administration has mandated that no Catholic can own a business and provide health insurance to their employees without incurring crippling fines,” O’Brien says. And it’s not only Catholics the administration’s regulation would keep inside churches. This posture is one that the Department of Justice has been defending in court, arguing that an individual makes a choice to put these religious-liberty claims aside when he decides to run a company. “Once someone starts a ‘secular’ business, he categorically loses any right to run that business in accordance with his conscience,” explains Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The business owner simply leaves her First Amendment rights at home when she goes to work at the business she built. Kosher butchers around the country must be shocked to find that they now run ‘secular’ businesses. On this view of the world, even a seller of Bibles is ‘secular.’” Among others fighting for their religious liberty in the courts on account of the HHS mandate is Mardel, an affiliate of the evangelical-run arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby. Mardel sells Bibles and other Christian material, “but because it makes a profit, the government has now declared it ‘secular,’” Duncan points out.

The legal battle has been a roller-coaster ride, with some procedural victories for religious entities, including the Archdiocese of New York and Wheaton College. A three-judge panel has granted O’Brien’s Christy Industries temporary relief from having to implement the policy; this means that, for now, he’s spared from the crippling fines that come with noncompliance. O’Brien filed his lawsuit in March, and his request was dismissed in September. The temporary injunction issued in late November “marked the first time a Court of Appeals has weighed in to any extent on an HHS-mandate case,” his lawyer, Francis J. Manion, of the American Center for Law and Justice, has noted. The injunction has given at least momentary hope to others, such as the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain. “It is a step in the right direction — only that,” O’Brien says. He emphasizes that the relief it provides is merely temporary. Without the injunction, he notes, “we must provide insurance for things that I and my church find abhorrent.”

Election-year rhetoric erroneously framed this debate about religious liberty and the nature of freedom as a war on women. With the passage of the season, O’Brien has the opportunity to inject a dose of sober truth into the public discourse on the matter. “The opposition posits that those on my side are trying to deny the right of anyone to use birth control,” he says. “We simply don’t want to be forced to pay for it, be a party to it.” A legal win for O’Brien is not going to affect access to contraceptives in the United States; his lawsuit is not a stealthy pro-life strategy to curb legal abortion. “I don’t want to know what my employees do in the privacy of their bedrooms,” he explains. “But when I am forced to pay for what they do there, I am brought into their bedroom.”

Even in the midst of a fight that could affect their livelihood, the O’Brien family is keeping things in perspective. “My wife and I started out poor,” he recalls. “So far, the worst that they can do to us is bankrupt us. We were happy when we were poor, and we would still be happy if we became poor again.” The O’Briens have faced worse — even this year. “Other than not understanding the other side’s logic on this issue, we don’t get too emotionally involved. Our 32-year-old daughter died of melanoma this year. Emotionally that was and is a much bigger issue for us.”

Still, the federal government shouldn’t be forcing the O’Briens to make a choice between paying exorbitant fines that will bankrupt them and violating their religious convictions. Frank O’Brien’s freedom to live by his faith in the public square is a freedom that everyone has a stake in defending.

“I believe that God gave me everything,” O’Brien tells me. “I will be judged as to how good a steward I was of the gifts that I have. A person should be the same person in church on Sunday that he is in his business on Monday. Each of us was given free will. I and my companies respect the right of others to have their own beliefs.”

O’Brien didn’t qualify for any of the relatively arbitrary exceptions to the HHS mandate, so he acted early to request relief. In a brilliant election-year move, the administration gave religious nonprofit organizations a little more time to figure out how to “accommodate” themselves to the mandate, to use the administration’s word — i.e., how to violate their conscience. One judge recently ordered HHS to report every 60 days until religious nonprofits have fully accommodated themselves to the mandate. If Catholic and evangelicals schools, among others, manage to win some legal relief, the Frank O’Briens of the country will still have a long, expensive battle on their hands.

“Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, I think that our customers will find it beneficial to do business with a firm that will treat them the way that firm wishes to be treated,” O’Brien tells me. It’s not a bad attitude to have in business. Good moral characters build healthy moral climates — not a bad thing, including in the economic realm where O’Brien and the Greens of Hobby Lobby operate. A little more good stewardship might keep us from future fiscal-cliff watches over Christmas.

“I see myself as just an individual struggling to be good,” O’Brien says. “I am not the smartest or most hard-working person I know. God gave me the opportunity to be the steward of my companies during my lifetime. I am simply trying to follow His will, as my conscience and church direct, to the best of my ability.”

Frank O’Brien can be a source of inspiration for those of us who tend to compartmentalize and keep our religious beliefs private. He’s got integrity in spades, challenging himself daily to live his faith authentically. This is someone to do business with! If our federal government doesn’t shut him down.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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