Politics & Policy

John Kennedy vs. Obama

A Grand Rapids small-business owner sues for his religious liberty.

John Kennedy, CEO of Autocam and Autocam Medical in Grand Rapids, Mich., is suing the Department of Health and Human Services over its abortion-drug, sterilization, and contraception mandate. A Catholic, Kennedy has gone to court to protect his religious liberty to refuse to provide insurance coverage for items he believes to be evil. He is not telling anyone what to do with their lives, he is simply seeking to operate his businesses in accord with his conscience, with integrity.

As the spotlight is on two Catholic vice-presidential candidates, Kennedy talks about why anyone should care about the religious-liberty rights of a small businessman in Michigan and how Obama-administration policy is eroding the religious liberty of us all.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do auto parts have to do with contraception?

JOHN KENNEDY: The Obama administration is forcing nearly all institutions — from Catholic hospitals to companies like Autocam, which manufactures high-precision components for the automotive and medical-devices industries — to cover the full cost of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. We’re also compelled to sponsor education and counseling related to the same.

These drugs, procedures, and speech acts violate my family’s deeply held beliefs about the sanctity of human life, and under the mandate we would be paying for them directly. Self-insured companies like Autocam and Autocam Medical don’t pay insurance premiums. Each month, we are presented with an invoice from our administrator that specifically names every drug and procedure our employees use, without identifying the employee. Then we write a check as a self-insured employer to cover the cost.

In order to build auto parts, we need employees. My faith’s teachings on social justice compel me to provide good wages and benefits to our employees, which we do. The mandate in the Affordable Care Act now compels me to change my plans and to offer, free of charge, non–medically necessary drugs and procedures that violate my religious beliefs.

LOPEZ: What business of yours is it what your employees do in their personal lives, with their health care?

KENNEDY: I am not trying to prevent access to anything that’s legal in the U.S. today. I don’t tell my employees how to live their lives or how to make decisions about family planning or abortion. In fact, our employees can purchase anything that the IRS defines as a “medical expense” — including a surgical abortion — with pre-tax dollars through their HSAs (health savings accounts). I’m simply trying to ensure that my family does not spend our money in a way that directly supports conduct that violates our deeply held beliefs.

LOPEZ: Does religious freedom really have anything to do with health insurance or business?

KENNEDY: Religious freedom has everything to do with health insurance and business. No one wants those engaged in business to check their moral beliefs at the door of the manufacturing floor or the trading room. Up to this point, health-care regulations have allowed me to design a plan that allows me to live out my commitment to social justice by offering good wages and benefits to my associates. We’ve designed an award-winning plan that promotes employees’ overall health and well-being and minimizes their financial risk. Our employees pay no premium for the plan if they comply with our wellness program, and 91 percent currently do so. We cover 100 percent of the cost of preventive care for employees and their families, and we contribute $1,500 in matching funds towards each employee’s deductible, which is $2,000 for an individual plan and $4,000 for a family plan.

But now the mandate’s attack on religious freedom endangers our ability to offer those benefits. The mandate puts me in an untenable situation because it asks me to choose among three options: (1) violate my conscience, by paying directly for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs; (2) violate my commitment to the Church’s social teaching, by dropping coverage; or (3) continue to offer health care that does not comply with the mandate, and thus face a $24 million per year fine, which would put Autocam’s U.S. operations out of business. I don’t understand why the Obama administration is attacking two manufacturing companies that provide 680 jobs with an average hourly W-2 of $53,000, and are hiring — especially when most of those jobs are in a state like Michigan, where the economy is still recovering from the upheavals in the auto industry.

LOPEZ: Why sue now? Is it an election stunt?

KENNEDY: It’s anything but an election stunt. We’re suing now because, if we don’t obtain relief from the court, we will be forced to choose between the three unsustainable options that I outlined above by January 1, 2013. In fact, we need to make a decision by November 1, 2012, in order to continue to offer health care next year. The mandate does take effect in the midst of the election season, and we hope that that fact will help us raise awareness and influence health-care policy in a way that prevents the violation of our first freedoms and makes it possible for employers like Autocam to offer high-quality insurance.

LOPEZ: What do you make of the widespread silence about the situation you are in?

KENNEDY: Most media coverage describes any objection to the mandate as motivated by a desire to deny women access to contraception. I don’t seek to deny women access to contraception, and neither does anyone else protesting the mandate. Almost every business owner I’ve talked to is unaware of the mandate, and many are in disbelief when I tell them about it. I hope that my lawsuit and commercial will inform others about this critical issue.

LOPEZ: Do you want an exemption or something else?

KENNEDY: Yes, we would like an exemption so that we can continue to offer our health-care plan for as long as possible. I don’t want to drop coverage, because the only options currently available to our employees are very expensive. And when the exchanges are put in place (they’re planned for 2014), they will still be more expensive for our employees than Autocam’s plan. The Kaiser Institute has a calculator, for example, that shows that our employees will pay thousands of dollars each year for their health care. One reason for this is that the government subsidy does not extend to families with a total income of $100,000. Since many of our employees are two-income families, we estimate that most are close to or exceed the family income of $100,000. Ultimately, we believe that the mandate should be struck down as unconstitutional.

LOPEZ: What would you hope voters would consider as a result of your commercial?

KENNEDY: I hope that the commercial can educate voters about this egregious violation of religious freedom and freedom of speech. I believe that anyone who voted for this law is no longer qualified to represent the American people. But whomever you support and whoever is elected, one thing is clear to me: We need to repeal or dramatically change the Affordable Care Act, because it gives the federal government the ability to violate the freedom on which our nation was founded.

LOPEZ: Since the HHS mandate has been cast as a Catholic issue, do you think Catholics have a heightened responsibility?

KENNEDY: I do believe Catholics have a heightened responsibility to respond, for that very reason. But it’s also important to note that this is not just a Catholic issue. Many Protestant-run institutions — from Hobby Lobby to Wheaton College — are fighting the mandate as well. The mandate is an unprecedented expansion of federal power. If President Obama’s administration can mandate that morally opposed institutions write checks for abortion pills, could an Evangelical president mandate that atheists write checks for Bibles? The mandate affects all Americans and their right to practice their religion — or no religion at all.

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

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