John Kennedy Goes to the Supremes

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Earlier this week, Autocam, a Michigan-based auto and medical supplies company, asked the United States Supreme Court to review a sixth-circuit decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not protect a Catholic business owner’s conscience rights in the face of the Department of Health and Human Services’ coercive abortion-drug, contraception, female-sterilization mandate. With 700 employees in the U.S., Autocam CEO John Kennedy talks with National Review Online about religious liberty and what he’s learned as he’s been fighting to protect his in court.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Had you ever heard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act before the president’s health-care law? Why is it so important and what about it had you hoped the White House would consider?

JOHN KENNEDY: While I wasn’t directly aware of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prior to the HHS mandate, I knew that we had a right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Almost as soon as the HHS Mandate was promulgated by the federal government, Catholic bishops started protesting its impact on religious liberty. As I began to consider what the mandate meant for our family and how we run our business, I began researching the applicable laws and came across the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). After speaking with my lawyers, I learned that RFRA offers the best probability of obtaining relief because it affirms the protection of religious liberty and conscience objections under the First Amendment and it was intended to prevent laws from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion.

I view my role as a business owner as a vocation and thus one of the ways in which I exercise my religion, even though Autocam is not an overtly religious organization. For instance, my understanding of Catholic social teaching impacts how we treat our employees, both in the work environment that we foster at the company and in the generous wages and benefits that we offer. The government wants to limit the free exercise of religion to the four walls of a church, which would not be good for society and is completely unacceptable.

LOPEZ: Isn’t running your business and making sure employees have health insurance more important than going to the Supreme Court? Why not just comply?

KENNEDY: The Catholic faith addresses the whole person and it informs how I interact with the world everyday, not just for an hour on Sunday. Thus, being a Catholic is part of who I am as an individual, a business owner, and the CEO of Autocam. While I wish I didn’t have to fight for my family’s right to exercise our faith as business owners, the HHS mandate leaves us with no option. If we didn’t sue over this issue, my family would face three choices, all of which are unconscionable according to our faith: (1) cripple the company by paying 19 million dollars in fines annually, thus forcing us to close and put everyone out of work; (2) cancel our health-insurance coverage, forcing our employees to pay substantially more for health insurance than they currently do; or (3) comply with the mandate and violate the teachings of our faith.


LOPEZ: What’s so special about your case? What would you hope the Court considers?

KENNEDY: We think our case gives the Supreme Court good reason to see that it should protect the religious liberty of those who try to live their faith in the marketplace. Because of our faith, we’ve gone above and beyond the market to treat our employees well, providing stellar wages and benefits that empower our employees to make their own choices about their health. Most of our employees pay no premium for their health insurance and we contribute $1,500 to their health-savings accounts in addition to covering the cost of preventive care (not including contraception). We are very proud of these benefits because they encourage employees to take charge of their health, giving them the freedom to make their own decisions. Thus, we are not restricting anyone’s freedom by refusing to cover contraception; employees can buy anything that is legal with their HSA money if they should choose to and we have no influence over how they spend those dollars. However, to provide contraception as a defined benefit for which the company is required to directly cut the check substantially burdens the free exercise of our religion.  


LOPEZ: Have you read the pope’s recent comments about how Catholics often look like we’re obsessed with the so-called social issues? Do you read that as a criticism of what you’re trying to accomplish with this case?

KENNEDY: The pope’s comments warned against focusing solely on a few social issues at the expense of promoting the foundations of the faith, which ultimately give these issues context. To interpret what he meant, I look to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” The day we filed our lawsuit was the first time that our employees actually heard about why we don’t cover contraception. The fact that we didn’t directly cover contraception was never an issue before because we pay great wages and have worked hard to provide excellent benefits that empower them to make their own decisions when it comes to their health care.

While I don’t actively preach my faith at the office, I have sought tirelessly to uphold Catholic social teaching in my everyday life, most particularly by respecting the dignity of work and the worker. The pope said that we need to provide context to the moral teachings of the Church so that when we do talk about social issues, we have a firm ground upon which our beliefs can stand. Because of how hard we have worked to treat our employees justly (which is the best way I can preach the Gospel in the workplace), I strongly believe that Autocam provides appropriate context for talking about these social issues. When that justice is threatened as it is now, we are called to use words.


LOPEZ:  What have you learned over the course of this fight? Are there upsides?

KENNEDY: It has been amazing to me to see how supportive our employees have been of our lawsuit. Autocam has fabulous employees and my family truly appreciates how much they respect our religious beliefs, even when they don’t entirely agree with our position. Further, they want us to continue to offer the same healthcare plan that they have been offered for years because they recognize that it is substantially better than what they could buy on the exchange or through another employer.

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