Standing tall and holding fast

Published 11:00 pm Friday, December 28, 2012

“In essence, if you are Catholic in this country you no longer can own a company,” Frank O’Brien explains.

O’Brien, a St. Louis distributor, is one of more than 42 plaintiffs suing the federal Department of Health and Human Services over its mandate that forces employers to provide health insurance that includes access to contraception and abortion services. This controversial Obamacare regulation threatens the religious liberty of not only Catholics but also evangelicals and others with objections of conscience to any of these policies.

“By means of this mandate, the Obama administration has mandated that no Catholic can own a business and provide health insurance to their employees without crippling fines,” O’Brien says. It’s a policy that the Department of Justice has been defending in court, arguing that an individual absolutely makes a choice to put these religious-liberty claims aside when he or she decides to run a company.

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“Kosher butchers around the country must be shocked to find that they now run ‘secular’ businesses. On this view of the world, even a seller of Bibles is secular,” Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty explains.

The legal battle has been tumultuous to watch, with some procedural victories for religious entities, including the Archdiocese of New York and Wheaton College. A three-judge panel has given O’Brien’s company temporary relief from having to implement the policy, sparing him from the crippling fines that come with noncompliance. The temporary injunction issued in late November “marked the first time a Court of Appeals has weighed in to any extent on an HHS-mandate case,” as his lawyer, Francis J. Manion, at the American Center for Law and Justice, noted at the time.

“It is a step in the right direction, only that,” O’Brien emphasizes.

O’Brien tries to inject a sober reality check to the public discourse on the matter. “The opposition posits that those of my side are trying to deny the right of anyone to use birth control,” he says, countering: “We simply don’t want to be forced to pay for it, be a party to it.”

A legal win for O’Brien is not going to affect contraceptive access in the United States; his lawsuit is not a stealth pro-life strategy to curb legal abortion. “I don’t want to know what my employees do in the privacy of their bedrooms. When I am forced to pay for what they do there, I am brought into their bedrooms,” he explains.

The federal government shouldn’t be forcing this choice. O’Brien’s freedom to live his faith in the public square is one that everyone has a stake in defending.

“I believe that God gave me everything,” O’Brien tells me. “I will be judged as to how good a steward I was of the gifts that I have. A person should be the same person in church on Sunday that he is in his business on Monday.” “Each of us was given free will,” he continues. “I and my companies respect the right of others to have their own beliefs.”

Not qualifying for any of the relatively arbitrary exceptions to the HHS mandate, O’Brien acted early to request relief. Religious nonprofits were given a little more time to figure out how to violate their consciences lest they face the government’s wrath — a brilliant election-year move on the administration’s part. Should Catholic and evangelicals schools, among others, get some relief, there will still be the Frank O’Briens of the country, who the Obama administration has actively gone to court to keep from exercising their religious liberty.

“Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, I think that our customers will find it beneficial to do business with a firm that will treat them the way that the firm wishes to be treated,” O’Brien tells me. It’s not a bad attitude to have in business. Agents of character build strong moral climates. A little more stewardship might keep us from future fiscal cliff standoffs.

“I see myself as just an individual struggling to be good. I am not the smartest or most hard-working person that I know. God gave me the opportunity to be the steward of my companies during my lifetime. I am simply trying to follow His will as my conscience and church direct to the best of my ability,” O’Brien sums up.

O’Brien should be a source of inspiration for so many of us who have been known to privatize and compartmentalize our professed beliefs. He’s got that integrity thing down, demanding an authenticity to his faith and challenging himself daily. This is someone to do business with! Instead, we might shut him down.

(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online She can be contacted at