Taking the culture of death to court

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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History is repeating itself for Frank O'Brien.

Several years ago, the Catholic business owner filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, challenging a mandate that required most employers to purchase health insurance for their employees, including coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs.

The suit eventually became the U.S. Supreme Court case in which Hobby Lobby challenged the mandate within the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Christian, family-run company, saying that it should be protected from the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It's absurd that O'Brien finds himself in court once again, fighting against many of the same issues — this time presented in a St. Louis ordinance that claims to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person's reproductive health decisions or pregnancy. The Thomas More Society filed the suit May 22 in federal court on behalf of O'Brien and his company, along with Our Lady's Inn and several archdiocesan elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis

The problem with ordinance 70459 is that the language is so vaguely worded, and includes religious exemptions so narrow, that it contradicts the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. Thomas More Society attorneys also noted that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution and several state laws, including the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

O'Brien is chairman of O'Brien Industrial Holdings, a south St. Louis-based holding company that operates several businesses that explore, mine and process refractory and ceramic raw materials.

Employees who work there pass by a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which sits in the corner of the lobby. The Sacred Heart of Jesus was enthroned to the business in 1992 at the hands of then-owner Nick Franchot, and remains today under the leadership of O'Brien. It's just one of many ways in which the business has created a framework of Catholic values in the workplace.

O'Brien also does not wish to include coverage for abortion, contraceptives and sterilizations in the company's health insurance plan, but his company would not be included under the religious exemptions in the St. Louis ordinance.

The problems with this ordinance extend far beyond the Archdiocese of St. Louis as an organization. Individual Catholics of good faith who do not wish to act against their consciences would be affected in other ways. Two other examples include:

• Catholic schools or Catholic Charities agencies could be penalized by the city for refusing to employ individuals who publicly promote the practice of abortion.

• Landlords who do not want to rent to people who are actively associated or involved with the abortion industry also could be penalized for following their religious beliefs.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson is taking a stand for Catholics such as O'Brien, by saying that the archdiocese "will not comply" with this poorly written ordinance that seeks to make St. Louis an "abortion sanctuary."

"The passage of this bill is not a milestone of our city's success," he said. "It is, rather, a marker of our city's embrace of the culture of death."

The city of St. Louis should be a sanctuary of freedom, not a sanctuary for death. 

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