Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


The Hobby Lobby Case and Principled Pluralism


Chelsea Langston

08-02-2013


August 2, 2013

By Chelsea Langston

This article discusses the Hobby Lobby case, mentioned last week in Timothy Sherratt’s piece on principled pluralism. A version of this article originally appeared on SharedJustice.org, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.

"Would an incorporated kosher butcher really have no claim to challenge a regulation mandating non-kosher butchering practices?”

This quote came from a ruling that both shook up and shed light on the ongoing birth control mandate debate. On Thursday, June 27, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver, CO, held that Hobby Lobby stores will not be forced to pay burdensome fines (475 million dollars per year) for failure to comply with the federal birth control mandate.

Hobby Lobby had filed suit challenging the mandate and seeking to have it overturned on the grounds that the birth control requirement violated the religious beliefs of David Green, the chain’s founder and CEO. In this ruling, the federal court gave the craft store chain, based in Oklahoma City, a temporary reprieve.  The court held that Hobby Lobby may continue with its case without being exposed to financial penalties in the interim.  The Tenth Circuit judges said the lower Oklahoma court erred in not granting Hobby Lobby and its sister company, Christian booksellers Mardel Inc., an injunction (a stay) while their case is still in process.

The ruling is a victory for those who believe that both faith-based organizations and for-profit companies founded on faith-based principles should have the freedom to live out their essential beliefs in their daily operations.  These organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit, offer their clients, customers, and patrons unique products and services that cannot be separated from the essential faith tenants and principles undergirding these organizations’ operations. 

Hobby Lobby is known for strong Christian principles that shape the very fabric and personality of the company and therefore attract a certain group of customers and employees. On Hobby Lobby’s homepage, the words “In God We Trust” are featured prominently on eye level. As the site puts it, “the company carries no long-term debt, and pledges to provide exceptional selection, value and service….all Hobby Lobby stores are closed on Sunday.”

Hobby Lobby marries the notion of exceptional, golden-rule customer service and business practices with the notion of respecting the Sabbath, a faith doctrine of its founder.  The fact that Hobby Lobby is willing to remain closed on Sundays, a very profitable day for many retailers, to remain true to the religious beliefs on which it was founded, demonstrates the store’s commitment to putting the faith-based principles that shape this business’ character over making more profit.

Therefore, forcing Hobby Lobby to comply with a mandate to provide contraceptive services to all employees, when such services fly in the face of the founding faith tenants of the company, places the Oklahoma City-based chain in an impossible situation. The fact that the federal appeals court found that Hobby Lobby stores have a good case against the federal health care law’s birth control mandate provides some much-needed hope. 

While Hobby Lobby is the biggest and most recognizable of for-profit companies who have challenged the contraception mandate and sought an exception based on religious reasons, there are over thirty businesses in multiple states that have also brought challenges. Hobby Lobby and Mardel Inc. were granted expedited federal review because the massive fines for not providing employees with the requisite forms of contraception would have started accumulating on July 1. The Tenth Circuit judges cited a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling that confirmed that for-profit corporations have political expression rights.  The judges drew a parallel and stated that recognizing rights to political expression would be tantamount to acknowledging for-profit companies’ rights to religious expression.

A customer who really wants to buy fabric glue on Sunday, or shop online for scrapbook materials without being reminded of their Creator, or who wants to spend their dollars at a pro-contraception company, can surely take their business elsewhere. That is the beauty of principled pluralism, which, according to the Center for Public Justice’s founder James Skillen, “means that governments are required to do justice to society’s nongovernmental organizations as a matter of principle.”

The notion of principled pluralism embraces a diversity of institutions that serve different functions in society and are allowed to thrive, or fail, based on their relationships with individuals and other groups in their community. If for-profit companies are willing to put their profit margins and public reputations on the line to adhere to their religious tenets, why not let them?  Giving for-profit and non-profit faith-based entities alike the autonomy to craft their own space in the American marketplace will ensure the continuation of institutions that provide needed goods and services to a diversity of individuals, some kosher, some not.

Chelsea Langston is an attorney at a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, DC.



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”