Can a Christian run a business without violating his faith?
The government says no.
By Chris Potts
You would think a family that’s spent a half-century making drawers and cabinets would know a little something about compartmentalizing. That is, after all, why people buy and install drawers and cabinets—so that they can tuck away things they’re not using … store them out of mind and out of sight.
The Hahns understand that. They make their living carefully crafting oak and cherry, maple and pine creations so simple and beautiful that whatever may be stored within becomes almost an afterthought.
They’re good enough at it that their business has grown, in 50 years, from a two-man operation to more than a thousand employees. Among their customers, they have a reputation for excellence. Within their community, they’re respected for their generosity. Their employees speak of the family’s kindness and compassion.
The Hahns themselves speak little of any of these things; privacy is as fundamental to their character as faith is to their beliefs. But they are not ashamed of their convictions, or of how those convictions shape their daily life and work and environment. Their beliefs are personal, but they are not hidden away.
In houses and offices, drawers and cabinets have their place. People like the Hahns, though, have no compartments in their hearts. They believe that if a man truly holds to his convictions, he must honor them as faithfully on the floor of his factory as he does at his own breakfast table.
But now the Hahns have come face-to-face with the hard reality that people who don’t share their religious beliefs—and even some who do—look on faith like the things in their cabinets … as something to be tucked away, out of mind, and out of sight.
It’s a view the federal government is now compelling the Hahns to share. But for people who have built their business as much on deep-seated belief as on finely crafted wood … the government’s demands go hard against the grain.
It is perhaps both easier, and harder, for the Hahns to understand what is happening in American legal culture today than it is for people of other faith backgrounds and persuasions, in other parts of the country.
As Mennonites, they represent a 500-year-old history of struggling for the right to live out their beliefs. “Struggling”—not “fighting.” The Mennonites have always cherished peace, shunned war, and responded to the various political and cultural pressures inflicted upon them by moving on, in search of places more sheltered from the social storms. That search has dispersed them, through the centuries, across Europe and into Africa, India, and South and Central America. Nearly 300 years ago, it brought a sizable number of them and their denominational cousins, the Quakers and Amish, to North America. There, many—including the Hahns’ own ancestors—put down roots in the newly-founded colony of Pennsylvania. What they found there, to a degree none of their kind had experienced anywhere else, was pure religious freedom … genuine tolerance for their beliefs and respect for their determination to live out that very personal faith in every aspect of their lives and communities.
Now, suddenly, after three centuries of peaceful coexistence with their fellow citizens in this vast, ever-changing country, they find themselves engulfed again by religious, political, and cultural pressures that may, once more, deny them the free expression of their personal faith.
The business that opened the Hahns’ lives to these intrusions, Conestoga Wood Specialties, first took shape in the family garage in 1964. Samuel gave himself to the hands-on work of creating doors, cabinets, and other furnishings while his brother Norman focused on the books.
“I basically grew up with the company,” says Anthony, one of four sons born to Norman, each of whom took a turn working for the fledgling company. Anthony and his brothers, Kevin and Lemar, were the three who stayed with it—Kevin as a member of the board, Lemar as project engineer and chairman of the board, and Anthony as president and CEO.
“It’s all I really knew,” Anthony remembers. “We lived across the street, so it was part of our life.” Both of his parents worked for the company, whose offices were upstairs in the family home. Anthony’s first job was mowing the factory lawn. Like his brothers, he in time learned the intricacies of saws, shapers, sanders, and other equipment. Eventually, he assumed management and office duties. Improved technology outpaced some of his early skills, but “I can still make a door,” he says, smiling.
Lemar, who works in the engineering department, still makes a little of everything, but especially enjoys tinkering with adhesion—finding effective ways of melding wood pieces together. He finds something particularly rewarding, he says, in “just knowing that wood stays together by a substance, and our customers depend on that for safety and a good appearance.” The substance that has held the Hahns together, he says, is their biblical beliefs. Lemar appreciates how faithfully his parents taught him to believe in Christ “early on in life,” and sent him to a school that reinforced Christian principles. “My faith is very important to me,” he says. “It’s important for me to live every part of it wherever I go, whatever I do. Even here at work.”
“Our faith—that’s what we’re founded on,” Anthony says. “That’s what we were building our company on—those values, those principles that we grew up with. It was our faith, our religion, to do business in a fair and ethical manner, and to treat our employees that way. ‘Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.’ That is in the Bible, and it’s played an important part in how we do business. And God has blessed this company.”
Indeed. Conestoga is now one of the largest manufacturers in the county, with a reputation not only for employing outstanding craftsmen, but for paying them well and treating them fairly.
“They’ve been trying to live their lives so thoroughly consistent with their religious faith,” says Randy Wenger, Chief Counsel with the nearby Independence Law Center, who knows the family as neighbors as well as clients. “The way they live out their faith in trying to serve others … to really be Christian light and truth, pervades everything, in terms of the way they run their business.”
Wenger recalls encountering a group of Russian refugees working in the Lancaster plant—only one of whom, it turned out, understood any English. The Hahns had hired all of them, knowing the group would be able to make a better wage working together, at the factory, where only one would have to speak the language.
“I love the Hahns,” Wenger says. “Just the fact that they’re real people, in everything they do. They do good work, and they’ve got a lot of customers because they do good work. God has blessed them in their business, and they’re looking in every way that they can to build back into the Kingdom of God.”
That same determination, though, now has the Hahns at odds with their own government … and every effort they’ve made to explain their actions and beliefs has been lost, so far, in translation.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ 2012 abortion pill mandate stunned Christian business owners across America, including the Hahns. The law dictates that all employers must underwrite, as part of their employees’ insurance benefits, life-ending abortion drugs. Those who decline to pay for their employees’ abortion pills risk fines of $100 dollars a day … per employee. Few businesses of any size can sustain a financial penalty of $36,500 a year, per employee.
By refusing to grant them religious exemptions for the mandate, then, the government is, in fact, ordering business owners—whatever their personal views on the sanctity
of human life—to actively support abortion, or risk crippling fines.
“I’m really disappointed,” Lemar says. “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in taking life. And now … here we are.”
“This is a moral concern for us,” Anthony says. “We actually have a sanctity of life statement that we put together that says we believe that life begins at the instant conception takes place. Nobody has a right to take that life except God. So we really don’t want to be in a business of providing drugs to our employees that could potentially cause abortion.”
But standing for that conviction puts the Hahns on the horns of another dilemma: confronting their very own government.
“Mennonites don’t go to court,” says Wenger, whose Independence Law Center was recruited by the family to defend them. “Here, they needed to go to court to be able to protect their rights.” Convincing the Hahns of that, he says, meant reaching “I wouldn’t say a comfort level, but an understanding, of what needed to be done. They want to be able to run their business, serve their clients and their employees in a way that honors God. So, ‘Okay, we need to go to court.’”
“It was soul-wrenching,” Anthony says. “We’re nonresistant, peace-loving people. We’re not in the legal world, doing a lot of lawsuits and things. So that was really troubling … to stand up and make that stand. But we felt we needed to. We just did not want to go against what we believe.”
“Norman Hahn was almost in tears, as he was speaking to us about the moral dilemma that this was creating for them,” says Wenger. “They want to live their lives according to their faith. Now, for the first time in 300 years, the government is telling them they can’t. Instead, they’re the enemy of the state, and the enemy of the government’s new policy.”
“That just seems wrong, for the government to create enemies … when these are people who only want to serve. These are genuinely good people. And they only want to do good. [Yet they’re] being treated like they’re doing something bad to society.”
In fact, Wenger says, the government that would punish the Hahns for not taking sufficient care of their employees is actually making it harder for them to do so. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, “the Hahns were providing outstanding insurance—all kinds of things that weren’t required by any law whatsoever; they were just concerned about their employees and their employees’ well-being. They didn’t need to be told by the government to do the right thing.”
Since the government got involved, though, Wenger says, “It’s much more difficult and much more expensive to be able to care for their employees in the way they want to. Instead, they’re being mandated now to do something that isn’t even preventing disease—it’s preventing, in all too many cases, a live human being—a new life—from growing and being born.”
The family business would face $100,000 a day in fines if the Hahns refused to follow the mandate. Yet the thought of supplementing abortion was unbearable. In December 2012, they filed suit against their government in federal court.
They lost. They appealed, and lost again. They appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit—and lost again. Wenger, an Alliance Defending Freedom Allied Attorney who had worked closely with the ministry in the earlier trials, realized the Hahns would need attorneys with solid Supreme Court experience if they were to file the only appeal left to them. Learning that ADF attorneys, representing other businesses, schools, and ministries, had won 18 of 19 court decisions blocking implementation of the HHS mandate, the family enlisted ADF to join their legal team.
“The legal experience of Alliance Defending Freedom is amazing, and empowering,” Wenger says. “From the get-go, we were on the phone with ADF attorneys … and because of the alliance, we were able to move the case effectively. Then, in approaching the Supreme Court level, to be able to bring ADF in as counsel, has been instrumental, just in terms of their vast experience at this specialized level.”
“We have a great legal team,” Anthony says. “I’m glad they’re supporting us, speaking for us—I’ve never had to speak in the courtroom. But I can say, sitting there, listening … I literally can feel my hands getting sweaty, because it’s just such an important issue for us, as a family.”
“One of the judges said the choice for the Hahns in this case is either to bury their religious beliefs or bury their business,” says ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, “and certainly no one should have to make that choice. If the government can force the Hahns to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs just to engage in a livelihood … that sets a dangerous precedent. If the government can do that to them, it can certainly do much worse to others.”
“This isn’t a narrow issue about the HHS mandate,” he says. “The principles that are involved here are much broader than that, because they extend to all of our daily lives.”
“Most people spend their lives trying to earn a living for their family,” says ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman, “and if the federal government can declare that religious freedom doesn’t exist when you do business, or in healthcare, or in other areas of life, then the federal government is assuming a power to itself to take away our freedoms and to control what we’re doing. That’s incompatible with the First Amendment, and with the freedoms this country was founded to protect.”
“The question in this case is whether all Americans will have religious freedom, and be able to live and do business according to their faith, or whether the federal government can pick and choose what faith is … who are the faithful … and where and when they can exercise that faith.”
The Hahns’ case—in conjunction with that of another family-owned business, Hobby Lobby, owned by the Green family of Oklahoma—was argued at the U.S. Supreme Court on March 25. A decision in the case was expected in June. Essentially, Wenger says, the court will rule on whether family businesses “are protected by the religious liberty rights in our Constitution, and whether the owners of these corporations lose their constitutionally protected religious liberties when they open the doors for business.”
After all, if you’re running a family business, “it’s not as if it’s some abstract entity out there that operates on its own,” Wenger says. “It’s operated by real people who stay awake at night worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills. We can make things in the Constitution ridiculously abstract, but at the end of the day, the court has to grapple with the fact that these are real people who have real convictions at stake.”
If the court somehow decides that neither family companies nor their owners have any rights, Wenger says, “our religious liberty rights are going to mean less and less in the modern age, particularly as government seems to be getting more hostile toward religious beliefs. Morality is changing, and the kind of morality that’s being pushed by the government is changing. We’re going to have a lot more situations where religious freedom could be—and is being—burdened. So it’s critical that the court get this right.”
One unfortunate side effect of suing the federal government—and having your case go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—is that you attract a lot of attention to yourself. That can be good for your case, and good for your ego, if you happen to like the spotlight. The Hahns don’t.
“As attorneys, we feel like it’s important for people to know what’s going on in these cases, because there’s a level of sympathy that people have when they understand the difficulty that this mandate causes in people’s lives,” Wenger says. “But we’re really limited in terms of media because [the Hahns] are not looking at getting attention for themselves—they just want to run a business, according to their faith. They would rather not be meeting with media at all.”
Unfortunately, the higher the case has moved up the litigation ladder, the more media attention it’s received. For the Hahns, Wenger says, that attention has spurred not excitement, but “resignation, because they felt it was their duty … a way to maintain their religious liberties, and help others. But I can tell you, they’d have been glad for someone else to take the lead on this.”
“The Hahns are a great example,” Cortman says. “It’s an incredible testimony, when a family is brave enough to take on the difficulties of litigating a case, going against the administration, going to court all this time, fighting for their beliefs at great cost to themselves.”
Looking back at all that, Anthony says, “There’s more at stake here than I realized. Allowing people to work hard, make a living, and grow their businesses—without having government intervening and causing issues and concerns. First Amendment rights. Religious liberty. Freedom. It just feels like they’re all being taken away. It’s very difficult, but … here we are.”
“These people are the real deal,” Wenger says. “They’re not, as some might suggest, Christians who are just trying to get out from under the rules that everyone else has to follow. They love God, and the people around them … and just want to be able to continue to do that in freedom.”
This article originally appeared in Faith & Justice magazine: alliancedefendingfreedom.org/faith-and-justice. Reprinted with permission.
Editor’s Note: On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling affirming that businesses do not have to surrender their religious freedom in order to remain in business. On October 2, 2014, the Hahn family received a permanent order against the abortion-pill mandate.
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman said, “All Americans should oppose unjust laws that allow the government to force people to give up their constitutionally protected freedom to live and work according to their beliefs. In light of this federal court order and the Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld that principle, we hope other courts currently considering similar cases will issue their own orders upholding the right of family-owned businesses to be free from this type of government coercion.”
ADF continues to litigate numerous lawsuits against the mandate on behalf of both for-profit and non-profit entities.
Volume 7 Issue 1 - The Renewanation Review