CEDARVILLE, Ohio — Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain whose objections to offering coverage for some forms of contraception led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling last summer, responded for the first time to questions about his company’s investments in pharmaceutical corporations that produce contraception and abortion drugs.
Those investments drew charges of hypocrisy after the company went to the high court to opt out of covering four forms of contraception on its insurance plan. Green also discussed the evidence, or lack thereof, that contraception interferes with a fertilized egg.
“That is several steps removed,” Green told msnbc on Thursday when approached at a conference on religious liberty at Cedarville University, referring to revelations reported in Mother Jones in April that Hobby Lobby’s 401(k) plan invested in corporations that produce contraception and abortion drugs. “Whether they do or not [invest in these drugs and devices], I couldn't confirm or deny it. I don't know if it's even true. Of course, the other question I would ask is, do those companies also provide a lot of life-saving products that our employees are dependent on? I don't know that either. But we've not made any changes.”
The Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby's favor in June, saying the company and others whose owners had sincerely held religious beliefs did not have to comply with Affordable Care Act requirements to cover some forms of contraception on insurance plans, believing they were equivalent to abortion.
While the case was still pending before the court, Mother Jones’ Molly Redden reported that the company’s 401(k) employee retirement plan, to which the company makes matching contributions, “held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions.”
Several legal experts told msnbc at the time that those revelations, which came too late to be part of the factual record before the court, raised “questions about the sincerity of their religious opposition to having insurance companies provide those same drugs” and “should significantly weaken Hobby Lobby’s claim that the contraception mandate imposes a substantial burden.” The company had declined requests for comment.
The Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that coverage for emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, as well as the IUD was essentially “several degrees removed" from actual providing those items to employees. Hobby Lobby, the administration argued, was only paying into an insurance plan which female employees could then use according to their individual consciences. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, flatly rejected that argument.
Another point of controversy in the Hobby Lobby case was whether the drugs and devices objected to by the Greens even do what they were alleged to do, which is prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. That did make into the record.
“There is no scientiﬁc evidence that emergency contraceptives available in the United States and approved by the FDA affect an existing pregnancy,” wrote a coalition of medical professionals in an amicus brief. “None, therefore, is properly classified as an abortifacient.” (It is possible that a copper IUD inserted after unprotected sex can block implantation, which the Greens, if not the vast majority of medical professionals, consider tantamount to abortion.)
Asked about that amicus brief, as well as GOP Senator and likely 2016 presidential contender Rand Paul’s recent comments declaring that Plan B "is taking birth control," and not having a supposed early abortion, Green said, “We just take what the FDA said. And it indicated that it can. And so I don't know that I would take Rand Paul's word over what we see from the FDA."
In the face of broadening scientific consensus that Plan B does not interfere with a fertilized egg, the manufacturer of the drug, Teva, has repeatedly asked the FDA to change the label to that effect, according to a New York Times investigation in 2012.
“I think there's a lot of people that question that. And they can have their opinion,” Green said of Paul’s statements. Asked if additional evidence about how these forms of contraception work make a difference, Green said, “I think we would have to reconsider it. I don't know with as much studies that have been out there that that can be known clearly.”
Later, in a keynote interview with radio host John Stonestreet, Green said, "We have no desire or intent to impose our religion on any of our employees....We want to not be forced to become an abortion provider by freely providing products that take life."
Green spoke with msnbc briefly following a breakout session on integrating business and religion, during which a moderator said he would refuse to allow questions from the audience about the Supreme Court case. In that session, Green responded to an audience question via index card about whether the company was hypocritical for working with vendors from China, given its human rights abuses. "We do have a process. We have an office in Hong Kong. They have a checklist for vendors to do the best we can to determine. There is no guarantee," Green said.
Another audience question expressed concern that "the government is becoming less and less tolerant of Christianity." Green replied, in part, "If an authority asks us to violate what God has told us to do, we have to understand that we’re first responsible to God. "
Cedarville University, host of the two-day Religious Freedom Summit, describes itself as a "Christ-centered, Baptist institution." It chose not to follow the path set by Hobby Lobby and did not sue over the Obama administration's "accommodation" for religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations, nor did it opt out of paying for the coverage through that accommodation, according to a spokesman for the university.