VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Christian family behind a lawsuit seeking an exemption to a U.S. government health care coverage mandate met with Pope Francis and thanked him for underlining the importance of religious freedom.
Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., based in Oklahoma City, along with about 15 family members met the pope in a private audience at the Vatican March 31.
When asked whether the pope gave the Green family any words of encouragement, Green, who is a Baptist, said the pope “mentioned the issue is important to Catholics.”
“The firm we engaged to defend us has a lot of Catholic connections and he was familiar with that,” Green said of the pope, adding that the pope also “asked when the ruling was going to come down,” Green said.
Green told Catholic News Service April 1 that he talked to the pope about his family company’s objection to providing all of the contraceptive coverage the Affordable Care Act’s mandate requires. The company, like a number of religious organizations, is claiming a religious rights exemption to the contraceptive mandate of the health care law.
A number of Catholic entities have brought lawsuits against the mandate and have said an accommodation for some employers to use a third party to pay for coverage they find objectionable still does not solve the problem of being involved in providing coverage they reject for moral reasons.
U.S. President Barack Obama met with the pope and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, in separate meetings at the Vatican March 27. The Vatican said the talks included “questions of particular relevance for the church in (the U.S.), such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection as well as the issue of immigration reform.”
Green said he thanked the pope “for having the discussion with our president on religious freedom and the importance of it.” He said he told him, “We felt like we were forced to file suit and that’s of kind of where we stood.”
The U.S. Supreme Court March 25 heard oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case and a case filed by the Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. The court focused on whether for-profit corporations have religious grounds to object to the new health care law’s requirement that most employers provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.
Hobby Lobby operates more than 500 arts and crafts stores in the United States with more than 25,000 employees. Unlike the Catholic Church’s position, the for-profit secular company is not opposed to covering birth control in its employee health plan and, in fact, already provides that benefit. What the Green family objects to is being required to cover contraceptive drugs considered to be abortifacients, such as the morning-after pill and Plan B.
The family opposes the law as violating the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and their religious liberty rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows for religious exceptions to general laws in certain circumstances.
Green said, “We do have, as a family, a very strong faith and if you look at the statement of purpose within our company, it’s to operate our business according to biblical principles because we believe that this business is God’s, that we are stewards of it and we are called to operate it according to the principles that he’s given us in his word.”
“We believe those principles help provide success for the business and when our government mandated that we provide life-terminating drugs, it’s what we in the family agreed that we could not do, so the only option we saw we had was to sue the government,” he said.
The Green family was at the Vatican for the opening of an April 2-June 22 exhibit on the Bible. The exhibit — sponsored by the Vatican Museums and Library, and the American Bible Society — features nearly 200 rare biblical texts and fragments from a number of collections including from the Green Collection — the Green family’s private collection of more than 40,000 biblical antiquities.