Politics & Policy

HVAC and the HHS Mandate

Catholic business owners fight for their religious liberty.

The Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring employers to offer health insurance covering abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception goes into effect on August 1. Matt Bowman, a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Newland family in Denver, whose religious liberty he is helping to defend. The Newlands run a company, Hercules Industries, that distributes products for heating and air-conditioning systems. They are asking for an injunction that will protect their constitutional rights as they face the beginning of their new health-care-enrollment year this fall.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The family that runs Hercules Industries in Denver has a real practical problem coming up on August 1, don’t they? Any compromises that have been floated don’t help the business owner who has a conscientious objection to the HHS mandate, do they? The government admits in its court papers that it intends to penalize this Catholic family business for following its religious beliefs. What are your hopes in asking for an injunction? Could it affect more than Hercules and Colorado?

MATTHEW BOWMAN: The basic principle in this case is the same as in other cases: that Congress does not let federal agencies punish people of faith for abiding by their faith, without passing the most demanding test known to federal law. We believe that in this case the government does not even come close to justifying its refusal to exempt religious objectors. This is because Congress provided secular exemptions for millions of employees, and it could easily give out more free contraception itself if the political will existed. We are hopeful the court will agree.

LOPEZ: On one level, does the government have a point with this HHS mandate? What does heating, air conditioning, and ventilation have to do with contraception and abortion? Why should Catholic sexual morality have anything to do with business?

BOWMAN: America is a country founded on freedom, not on a presumption of government coercion. Religious freedom in America has always included the way people exercise their beliefs Monday through Friday, not just on Sundays and in soup kitchens. If the government succeeds in destroying religious freedom for family businesses, they won’t be able to allow Jesus Christ to reign over their entire lives.

LOPEZ: Why can’t the Newlands just get over this?

BOWMAN: Pope Benedict explained in Washington, D.C., that it is not “consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices . . . contrary to those beliefs. . . . Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.” The government argues that what you do in business cannot possibly be subject to religious obligations, but must only consider profit.

LOPEZ: Have people been going overboard in their criticism of the president’s comments on business owners? Wasn’t he really just making an argument most religious folks and anyone who values civil society would agree with?

BOWMAN: Business owners are citizens, family members, and Americans. In his speech in Roanoke, Va., the president strongly implied that business owners are not primarily responsible for their success. That is consistent with his position in this lawsuit that families in business are not responsible for pursuing their chosen values. The question is not whether families and communities support each other in business. The question is whether anyone but the government gets to decide whose values to freely pursue. If the government can declare the Gospel unwelcome in business because the president has deemed this sphere inherently “secular,” no ethical standard can be used to advocate in business for a just wage, responsible investment practices, or environmental stewardship. No person could follow business principles unless they were approved by the government. As it has tried to do with education in the Hosanna-Tabor case, and with elections through its limits on tax-exempt entities, the government will have demarcated yet another area of life where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is irrelevant as a matter of legal fiat.

LOPEZ: Aside from the churches’ being exempted, is there arbitrariness in some of the exemptions from the mandate the administration has allowed?

BOWMAN: The government admits that the HHS mandate is religiously offensive, because it exempts some religious entities. But the government thinks it can pick and choose what faith is, who the faithful are, and where and how that faith may be lived out, by saying that you aren’t really religious unless you are in church. That snuffs out the very freedom our government was established to protect.

LOPEZ: Are the Heplers of Pennsylvania in a similar boat?

BOWMAN: Yes, except their next health plan does not kick in until July 2013. They are a devout Catholic, multigenerational family that runs a lumber and wood-products business in western Pennsylvania. The HHS mandate is forcing them to change their health plan to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization, not only for themselves and their employees, but for their children.

LOPEZ: What do they have to do with Geneva College?

BOWMAN: In May, the Hepler family joined in the same lawsuit with Geneva College, a Presbyterian school, because both are in western Pennsylvania and both are asking the court in Pittsburgh to protect them from the HHS mandate’s attack on religious freedom. The principle of religious freedom should ultimately be vindicated to protect both Evangelicals and Catholics in their desire to abide by the principles of their religious faith.

LOPEZ: Do you have any sense of how many businesses care about this mandate? Is it hard to get folks to come forward?

BOWMAN: So far four businesses have filed suit, and I have heard that more will do so. I think religious people in business will continue to realize that the government is threatening their freedom to follow, Monday through Friday, the Lord they worship in church on Sunday.

LOPEZ: As things stand today, what’s the state of religious liberty in America come August 1?

BOWMAN: August 1 begins an unprecedented chapter in the federal government’s attack on religious freedom, and its rejection of the Constitution and religious-freedom statutes. We will work tirelessly to help the courts protect Americans from the administration’s two poison pills: either comply with its mandate and desert your faith, or resist and be punished.

LOPEZ: This is all fairly outrageous — why isn’t there more outrage out there?

BOWMAN: When Americans realize that Washington politicians are trying to decide what faith is, who the faithful are, and where and how that faith may be lived out, so it can force families to abandon their faith just to earn a living, I think people will speak up more and more. Alliance Defending Freedom will be working to inform the faithful and help them protect their liberty.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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