Outside the Supreme Court, a late-March snow fell as activists talked, held banners and prayed. Inside the hallowed halls, the justices debated whether companies should be forced to provide employee health care coverage that involves violating their owners’ religious principles.
The controversy surrounding this contentious issue has nothing to do with limiting access to birth control, as most of the mainstream media seems to believe, but protecting the religious freedom of those — including religious sisters who serve the elderly poor — who can’t in good conscience participate in policies that cover contraceptives and abortion procedures.
As the snow piled up on the benches outside the Court, Ed and Barbara Green walked down the steps. The Greens are the evangelical family who run the Hobby Lobby arts and craft chain.
“The choice that the government has forced on us is out of step with the history of our great nation founded on religious freedom,” Barbara Green said. “We believe that no American should lose their religious freedom just because they open a family business.”
As Anthony Hahn, the Mennonite CEO of Conestoga Wood, a cabinet-making company in Pennsylvania, and a co-plaintiff with the Greens, explained how he got to the last place he ever expected to find himself — in front of cameras at the Supreme Court — his wife, Carolyn, looked radiant. The Hahns and the Greens know what a gift religious liberty is, and they won’t give it up without a fight.
The Department of Justice argues that people give up their religious-liberty rights when they go into business, and given the fact that many are willing to restrict their religious beliefs to Sunday worship, weddings and funerals, it’s a believable position.
While in Rome on political business recently, President Obama took time to meet with Pope Francis. The White House had hoped to benefit from papal popularity and divert attention away from the Obamacare debate in the Supreme Court. When the White House lost its grip on the narrative somewhat, the president, after downplaying any disagreements he might have with the pope and the Catholic Church (never mind evangelicals and Mennonites!), explained: “I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he is dealing with higher powers.”
This is true, up to a point. The invitation that Pope Francis issues is to a reality where one knows he is loved by God, the creator of the world, that he has a Savior who won victory over death, and has a counselor in the Holy Spirit — he is treasured and never alone. If you believe this, it’s hard to live life superficially, it’s hard not to be transformed. But let’s look a little deeper at the mechanics of this message.
At the meeting, Pope Francis gave the president a copy of his apostolic exhortation, “Gospel of Joy.” In it, he criticizes “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.”
The Hahns, Greens and their co-plaintiffs in the Obamacare lawsuit do not divide their business lives from their spiritual lives. They seek to live life authentically, as people of faith who try to make it possible for their employees to do the same, if they so choose. This is some of what the pope is getting at. So many people of faith live lives of practical atheism, where we privatize our faith and do not overwhelm people with Christian hope, love and joy. This is a spiritual matter, yes, but it perforce must involve political stands and physical action to have a true effect on the world.
Ultimately, much of the media wrote up the papal-presidential meeting as an exchange of ideas about income inequality, and maybe contraception was mentioned. That’s missing the story. The Greens and the Hahns may not fully have our attention, but we’re free to listen and join them in their exercise of and defense of freedom.