Hobby Lobby case headed for the Supreme Court

New York Times News ServiceAugust 10, 2013 

In June, a federal court ruled Hobby Lobby, the art-supply chain, cannot be fined for refusing to offer employees morning-after contraception coverage. This challenge to the Affordable Care Act will surely go to the Supreme Court, where Hobby Lobby's lawyers will argue a for-profit company can, legally speaking, be Christian -- with the same rights to religious freedom a person has.

Hobby Lobby is not alone in identifying itself as a Christian business. In-N-Out Burger, Chick-fil-A, trucking company Covenant Transport and clothing store Forever 21 all call or market themselves as Christian or faith-based.

But what does that mean?

To promote a conservative agenda?

To insist on certain music in their stores or to print Bible verses on their wrappers?

What about bigger questions, like how management treats -- and how much it pays -- its workers?

Most Christian-identified businesses were founded by evan-gelical Protestants who are mostly politically and socially conservative. (The most famous Roman Catholic businessman, Tom

Monaghan, who founded and then sold Domino's Pizza, also finances conservative causes.)

Chick-fil-A is famous for its gifts to gay-conversion ministries, but it also supports group foster homes.

Tyson Foods, which was founded by evangelicals and, according to its website, seeks to "honor God," offers chaplaincy services to employees.

Hobby Lobby is now famous for its stance against what its founders consider abortion pills. But it also promotes a central liberal goal by offering a minimum wage of $14 an hour for full-time employees, about double that of the fast-food employees who struck nationwide this week for better pay and conditions.

Hobby Lobby closes Sundays because of the Christian Sabbath, but guaranteeing all workers that one day off surely pleases secular workers, too -- even if some of them may object to the stores' Christian-music-only policy.

Forever 21 prints "John 3:16" on the bottoms of its shopping bags.

Covenant Transport, founded in 1985 by David Parker, an evangelical, wears its Christianity on the side of its trucks: in its name, which refers to the many covenants made with God in the Bible, and in its logo, a scroll that recalls the parchment on which biblical texts would first have been written.

The Bible verses on In-N-Out Burger milkshake cups, burger bags and other packaging are quite fun, even for an atheist. The verses are tiny and varied, so you have to hunt and see what turns up. Proverbs 24:16 is on the fry boat: "For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity."

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and a Southern Baptist, said the Christian identity of his company affects how it negotiates with vendors.

"We'll negotiate as, 'Here's what we'll pay,' and leave it at that," Green said Wednesday.

"Sometimes you don't intend on paying more, but they come back, and things do change," he said. "But we're not going to intentionally lie in our negotiating."

Focusing on particular practices, like quotes on fry boats or gospel music, can obscure deep philosophical divisions among Christians who think about business ethics.

For some, the Bible is a kind of business manual you'd buy in an airport bookstore, offering timeless precepts that happen to maximize profits.

For others, Christian business is about something much larger. Douglas Hicks, a Presbyterian minister, the provost of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and author of "Religion and the Workplace," said Christians must focus on how business affects people, especially the workers.

"Are people able to live out their own agency by making a contribution in the workplace?" is, according to Hicks, a question Christians should ask.

Do employees have meaningful work, or just repetitive, low-paid, mind-numbing work?

Hicks did not object to burger-wrapper or shopping-bag evangelism. But he cautioned the businesses behaving in the most Christian manner may not have visible marketing plans.

"It's the actions," he said, not the branding.

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