A Tale of Two Companies: HSBC, Hobby Lobby & Religious Freedom

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

It’s the best of times for HSBC, the giant British bank caught using American personnel and facilities to launder money for Mexican drug cartels and various rogue states.  How so?  HSBC’s stock value has continued to rise since the U.S. government announced a “record fine” to “punish” the corporation for its willful flouting of laws intended to prevent just this kind of profiteering on, and assistance to, crime.  An accommodating company, HSBC fired employees who sought to implement anti-corruption procedures required by law and even widened the windows at some of its branch offices in Mexico to allow tellers to accept larger boxes of money from the Sinaloa drug cartel.  The “record” fine levied on them by the American government of $1.9 billion sounds like a lot, no doubt, but represents only about one-twentieth of the company’s profits last year.  One commentator likened the fine to a parking ticket. Some corporate officers have lost their jobs, of course (after all, they got caught and produced bad publicity, and a parking ticket), but no one is going to jail—or even paying any fines out of their own pockets—for helping murderous thugs put drugs on our streets and rogue regimes finance repression and programs to build weapons of mass destruction.  Why not?  According to the Obama Administration, actually prosecuting these gross violations of our laws would cause unrest and cost jobs.  And we know how committed the Obama Administration is to getting Americans off the dole and back to work.  As for HSBC, it’s good to be “too big to fail.”

It’s quite a different story for Hobby Lobby.  That company is owned by the Green family—evangelical Christians who have sought to run their business in accordance with the demands of their faith.  Its stores are closed on Sundays to observe the Sabbath.  The company partners with a variety of Christian groups to spread its faith-based message.  And the company will not support abortion.  So far the company has managed to get away with the first two of these activities, but it now faces fines of $1.3 million per day for refusing to comply with Obamacare requirements that it provide employees with insurance coverage for “emergency contraception” (i.e. abortions).  Hobby Lobby is no HSBC.  It doesn’t launder money, and it employs “only” 13,000 people.  What’s more, given the half billion dollars in fines it could easily incur before the Supreme Court hands down a decision in its lawsuit against the Obama Administration, federal “prosecution” of this kind may bankrupt it and certainly would “cost jobs.”  No word yet on whether the Obama Administration will suspend the fines on account of Hobby Lobby being “too big to fail.”  But I’m not holding my breath, and doubt members of the Green family are doing so, either.

Both these stories have received a fair amount of coverage (for example:  Hobby Lobby and  HSBC & HSBC (2)).  Glenn Greenwald has made some powerful criticisms of the double standard applied in American courts, which all too often treat the rich and powerful as being above the law.  But I’ve seen no one note the great irony involved in the very similar treatment being accorded HSBC and Hobby Lobby.

Fines for laundering money for drug cartels and regimes that support international terrorism.  Fines for refusing to fund abortions.  Sounds like moral equivalency to me.  The choices a government makes in its criminal prosecutions tell us a great deal about what it values; they also tell us a great deal about how it is trying to shape the institutions, beliefs, and practices of the people.  Despite Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts’ ludicrous opinion in the Obamacare decision some months back, it is obvious that the Obama Administration is determined to prosecute (if under the guise of “tax penalties”) any person or company that dares put its religious principles before the government’s ideology.  Indeed, we are seeing the very real teeth of our culture of death, here, with a family business facing bankruptcy for failing to act against its deeply held religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of innocent life.

Some people make too much of the natural law claim that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  That principle is more fully and properly rendered as “an unjust law seems like no law at all,” it is a kind of crooked law, corrupted by injustice so that its aim has been deflected from its true goal of justice.  Laws that are corrupted still have a claim on us to the extent that our obedience is necessary for a decent, ordered society.  But on one thing St. Thomas Aquinas was clear:  a law that demands of a person that he actively violate God’s law is, in fact, an act of violence, not deserving obedience.

And this is where we are today.  If you choose to advance your career by laundering money for drug cartels, you would be wise to make sure you are part of a very large and powerful corporation, in which case you’ll be issued the equivalent of a parking ticket if you are caught.  If you wish to live (and “live” includes running your own business) according to your religious principles, you’d better hope the government doesn’t decide to squash you like a bug.  Money issues are negotiable in our oh-so-tolerant, commercial society.  But “values” must be liberal values; the government has determined that fairness and equality require that inconvenient unborn children be terminated under the conscience-saving guise of “healthcare.”  And the government is going to feel that it is being kind to you, just as it is kind to money laundering banks, if it stops short of throwing you in jail.

Regardless of what our morally and intellectually challenged court system does with Hobby Lobby, we are facing the true issue of our era.  Now that social democrats have a firm grip on federal power, now that the very character of our nation has been corrupted so that common decency is being made illegal, the only hope for those seeking to maintain a moral, faith-centered life is to carve out exemptions—as many and as broad as possible—for our own practices, and for the practices our communities and institutions must support if our individual freedom is to mean anything at all.

Obamacare Brings Revolutionary Change
It is important for us to recognize how Obamacare constitutes a revolutionary change in our form of government, and in our society.  In one sense that program is merely an extension of misguided policies in place for many decades.  Americans like to think of themselves as too independent and virtuous for European-style social democracy.  This is why the government does not actually serve as the employer and sole provider in the healthcare sector.  In this country the government controls our activities more indirectly, in the case of healthcare by using laws to regulate tax liabilities and various, specific actions and procedures.  This is how health insurers have been turned into, in essence, arms of the government, complete with massive waste, inefficiency, and bad customer service.  It also is how the government manages to portray itself as the “solution,” stepping in to help the little guy by “taking on” (read “further regulating”) the bureaucratic monsters it, itself, created.

But at least some Americans had the option of not participating.  It was becoming a meaningless option, available only to the very healthy and the very rich, who could in essence “self insure.”  But some of us, at least, could remain free of some of the regulatory entanglements of our administrative welfare state.  That is no longer true. The “individual mandate” forces all Americans to participate in the government controlled healthcare system.  Right now the penalty for non-participation is just a fine (like for Hobby Lobby, and HSBC), but fines may be increased, and failure to pay them still can land you in jail.

But Obamacare also involves a more important game changer in the form of the contraception/abortion mandate.  And it is not in the area of economic and welfare regulation—where, frankly, Americans already have traded in freedom for security.  The contraception/abortion mandate goes much farther because it changes the terms by which each of us will be judged for living our lives.

The “religious exemption” to Obamacare’s contraception/abortion mandate constitutes a determined effort to change radically the very nature of our society.  By excluding from “exemption” any institution not engaged in insular, purely religious activities, it forces all people of faith openly engaged in the public square to cooperate in the ending of innocent life.  If put into practice, this policy will destroy what is left of the moral fabric of our society.  If allowed to stand without massive exemptions allowing people to live their faith in the world of work, this policy will mean that we will no longer be a free country in any meaningful sense.

The determination to excise religion from our public life, first implemented in a series of Supreme Court decisions creating a “right” not to witness public expressions of faith, now has reached fever pitch.  The aim now is to bar people from living their faith in the public sphere.  Those people of faith willing to live an Amish lifestyle—insular, self-regarding, and fenced off from the “secular” world in all its aspects—may be tolerated. But if you want to work for anyone but your church, if you want to do anything for a living other than preach and teach your faith, you must affirmatively cooperate in the ending of innocent human life.  You must actively, affirmatively violate fundamental precepts of your religious faith if you insist on engaging with the wider world.

The Green family has been very successful.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that smaller businesses will not also be forced to formally cooperate with activities their faiths deem morally evil—and that means to do evil—under the guise of “insuring health.”  Abortion supporters characterize all opposition to their radical programs as an intolerant attempt to oppress women, of course.  They also characterize the millions of women who oppose their radical programs as somehow delusional for not buying into their ideology.  We must expect such calumny, natural to radicals of all kinds, to continue.  It has helped keep abortion, including in its most grisly forms, all too common in America.  But if we cannot maintain our right against being forced to actively support this conduct through our places of work, we will truly have entered a time of darkness.

This essay first appeared January 8, 2013 on The Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • NormChouinard

    I agree with all of this but as the Holy Father has recently said, health care is a human right, which I also believe. We had better come up with a cogent alternative to Obamacare if we intend to be taken seriously.

    • Alecto

      Health care is not a human “right”. It’s a moral end. And no, you do not have the “right” to take from others to give to yourself.

    • MissFranci Girl

      I agree with Alecto that our past two popes are mistaken to say health care is a human right. Like access to adequate nourishment, medical care is a biological necessity for the patient, and a moral obligation on behalf of the caregiver. Keeping in mind, however, that both the physician and the farmer must profit to serve their own families, grow their businesses, and still have surplus to offer those less fortunate.

      • Facile1

        I agree that “medical care is a biological necessity for the patient, and a moral obligation on behalf of the caregiver.” But how does it follow that the government cannot be allowed to use its economies of scale to negotiate these physician and farmer “profits” and MUST just fork over taxpayer money for these “fee for service” prices?

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  • Alecto

    Americans love their handouts, judging by the election results. They
    have no problem extorting from others to finance those handouts. When
    the time is right, the Justice Dept. will extort more money from HSBC.
    It’s a numbers game. By imposing a small fine now, the minions from
    hell can go back to well later with fresh new charges. Don’t you
    understand? They’re financing a fundamental transformation, and that
    costs money. Lots of money – your money, my money, our money.

    sanctimoniously correct in their opinions and judgments, they have no
    problems forcing others to violate conscience or any moral limits to
    which people adhere all for the “common” good. They would most likely
    support total confiscation of all property and denial of all rights
    because they worship power and see nothing and no one sacred. In place
    of God, they installed a golden Social Security/Medicare calf. Mammon,
    thy name is entitlement check!

    And this is where I vehemently disagree
    with the Catholic church which sees no moral wrong in onerous taxation
    and redistribution, or oppression of the people by government as long as the ends are those of the European socialists who run the Catholic church. You’re
    darn right I believe in rebellion. I do not believe that man was meant
    to live in slavery. However, that is what the Catholic church teaches –
    accept your lot, head down, kiss the feet of your rulers. Fat chance,
    that. In the words of Macbeth, “at least we’ll die with the harness on
    our back.”

    • Ford Oxaal

      Well, we’re certainly not meant to live in the slavery of sin. And we have one life here on Earth, so yeah, offer it up for what is right and just. But as for the Catholic Church, it would be good if you could point to some encyclical that pushes for socialism. If you look at Leo XIII, the opposite is the case. If you look at what happened to the iron curtain, you can blame a lot of that on the Catholic Church. Better that it came down one concrete slab at a time than through tactical nuclear war. There will come a time in the U.S. for the federal government to be put back in its place. A lot of how that comes about will depend on the trust we put in Christ and how much we recognize the thanks and praise due to the Almighty, and how much Divine Mercy we can bring upon ourselves in the here and now, through, for example, devotion to the Divine Mercy as revealed by St. Faustina ( http://thedivinemercy.org/message/devotions/praythechaplet.php ). This is first and foremost a spiritual battle. And once that footing is firmly established, the positive neighborhood effects in simply discussing things with your local politicians and neighbors has a multiplier effect. It is certainly very frustrating just how far into the sand people’s heads have been implanted. But they have to come up for air sometime.

  • Facile1

    Government (democratic or NOT) is a human invention. The TRUTH is NOT.

    As a Catholic, I believe one can only know the TRUTH by knowing GOD. TRUTH does not exist outside of GOD. When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape GOD.

    Until EACH human being freely chooses the TRUTH (ie GOD) to invention (ie human), ‘religious liberty’ can mean NOTHING at all.

    To quote Matthew 6: 31-33, “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”

    Love GOD FIRST.

    It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one’s love for anything else in its proper place — whether it is the love for animals and/or things (paganism), the love for humans (humanism), or the love for self (narcissism).