July 4, 2014

High court upholds religious liberty for closely held businesses in key case

Bill Grote, left, chats on May 13, 2013, with Debbie Randall in a Grote Industries factory in Madison. Grote is chairman of the board of the family-owned business. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Bill Grote, left, chats on May 13, 2013, with Debbie Randall in a Grote Industries factory in Madison. Grote is chairman of the board of the family-owned business. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Bill Grote jumped out of his chair on June 30 when he saw a television report on the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding Burrell v. Hobby Lobby.

The report explained that the high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that closely held companies cannot be forced to abide by the federal Health and Human Service’s mandate that requires nearly all employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs, elective sterilizations and contraceptives to their employees free of charge if the individual or families that own these businesses have religious objections to the mandate.

Bill Grote is a member of a family that owns such a business. Since 1901, the Grote family has owned the Madison-based Grote Industries, a global manufacturer of commercial vehicle lighting products. Last fall, the Catholic family was granted relief from the mandate by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

If the Hobby Lobby ruling had gone against his family, the relief they had gained last fall would have disappeared. The federal government could have then levied severe fines on the company if it did not abide by the mandate.

And so when Bill learned that the court ruled in favor of the religious liberty of the family that owns Hobby Lobby, he said that he “kicked up my heels a little bit.”

“I jumped up out of my chair,” Bill said a few hours after the announcement. “My wife Terry was in the room. I gave her a hug and a big smile. It’s a wonderful day.”

A few days before, however, Bill was a bit more serious as he called his son Dominic, Grote Industries’ president and chief executive officer, into his office to consider the family’s next move if the court’s decision went against them.

“I hadn’t really been thinking in that frame of mind,” said Dominic. “It kind of put things into perspective. It was sobering.”

Dominic was busy at work on June 30 when the announcement came.

“I either got a phone call right away from Dad or someone sent me a text message,” he said. “Then all of the e-mails and texts started rolling in. I was really happy. I was elated.”

Dominic and Bill were pleased in part because, with relief from the mandate made permanent by the ruling, they knew that they could continue to contribute to the common good of their 1,200 employees globally, including 500 in Madison.

“Today’s ruling removes the great burden of the thoughts that were going through our minds as to what our alternatives and choices were if it was a negative ruling,” said Bill Grote. “This is received with great relief. It allows us to continue to grow our business and grow our employees. As we grow, we certainly support the community of Madison and our parish community.”

Bill and Dominic are both members of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison.

The ruling came in the midst of the U.S. bishops’ third annual Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period of prayer, learning and advocacy focused on religious liberty leading up to July 4. The theme for this year’s fortnight is “Freedom to Serve.”

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin saw the Hobby Lobby ruling in the context of this theme of service. (Related: Archbishop Tobin shares his thoughts on recent court decisions)

“A good Catholic businesswoman or businessman realizes that their faith has to inform the way they run their business,” Archbishop Tobin said. “This ruling means that Catholics can stay in business and contribute to the good of the human family.”

Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also praised the ruling.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business,” said Archbishop Kurtz in a prepared statement. “Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference and the public policy spokesperson for Indiana’s bishops, was also pleased with the ruling.

“It certainly is a good day for all Catholics and particularly business owners,” Tebbe said. “It’s a narrow ruling. But it will have broad application for many, many families and businesspeople in Indiana and throughout the nation.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion in the case. He was joined in it by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Roberts. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a part of the majority, wrote his own concurring opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined in it by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and in part of it by justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan.

University of Notre Dame constitutional law professor Richard Garnett explained that the Hobby Lobby decision was largely based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Congress passed on a broadly bipartisan basis in 1993. RFRA, Garnett said, allows courts “to review the burdens that well-meaning, general laws can have on religious beliefs and practices.”

“In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court did what Congress had asked it to do,” Garnett said. “Congress committed itself to a policy of accommodating religious beliefs and commitments to the fullest extent possible, and it specifically invited the courts to hold them to that commitment.”

At the same time, Garnett agreed with Tebbe that there are limits to the Hobby Lobby ruling and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act upon which it is based.

“In some cases, like this one, there are a variety of ways to achieve the government’s policy goals without burdening religious commitments,” he said. “This will not always be true, however.”

Nonetheless, Garnett said that RFRA is “an important recognition of the fact that, because ours is both a religious and a diverse society, and because government regulations cover so many aspects of life, accommodations and exemptions will sometimes be necessary.”

“It would be easy to say that regulations should always operate in a one size fits all way,” Garnett said, “but that would not respect our deeply rooted commitment to religious liberty and it has not been our practice.”

In addition to the mandate case involving closely-held for-profit businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Grote Industries, other cases involving non-profit religious institutions are still making their way through the federal courts.

Several Catholic schools, universities, charitable agencies and dioceses, including the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in northern Indiana, are parties in these legal actions.

In light of the Hobby Lobby ruling, Tebbe was optimistic about the ultimate outcome of these cases.

“When those cases reach the Supreme Court—and I think that they probably will—we have reason to be hopeful that the outcome will be as strong as this one, or maybe even stronger,” he said.

Whatever the ruling might be in those future cases, Dominic Grote will look back on June 30, 2014, as a “defining moment” in the history of his family’s business that now stretches across four generations.

“You take a stand for what you believe in,” Dominic said. “And it reflects a lot of the different values that we talk about with our employees and our customers. It’s a clear example of integrity, of family, of faith and community, which are all part of our values.

“It’s how we want to live our lives.” †

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