During its June 11 report to messengers in Baltimore, the ERLC will give this year's John Leland Religious Liberty Award to the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby. The Greens, evangelical Christians, have refused to abide by the federal government's abortion/contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide abortion-causing drugs to their workers. Their challenge to the requirement awaits a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to announce its ruling before it adjourns in late June or early July.
The ERLC will give the 2014 Richard Land Distinguished Service Award to Saeed Abedini, an American citizen imprisoned since 2012 by Iran's oppressive regime for his Christian service in that country.
Steve and Jackie Green, representing their family, and Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Saeed, will accept the awards from ERLC President Russell D. Moore.
The ERLC gives the Leland and Land awards annually to recipients who have shown a commitment to religious freedom and Christian service, respectively. The entity announced this year's recipients Tuesday (June 3) after their approval by its board of trustees.
In a message to the ERLC trustees, Moore said the Greens were selected for the Leland honor for standing for religious liberty "against a federal government demanding that they, along with countless other for-profit businesses, provide insurance for services that violate their core religious convictions."
"The Greens are, in such a time as this, standing for the religious freedom of all of us," Moore said in a June 3 news release by the ERLC. "They rightly recognize that the government is not lord of the conscience. Their allegiance, they've rightly understood, belongs first and foremost to God, not government."
In the release, Steve and Jackie Green said of the award, "On behalf of the Green family we are honored to accept the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's 2014 John Leland Religious Liberty Award. We appreciate your prayers & support as we stand together for religious freedoms."
The ERLC chose Abedini for his admirable service and faithfulness to God's kingdom, Moore said.
"Through his story, and through Naghmeh's advocacy, millions of Americans have heard a gospel-focused plea for religious freedom," Moore said. "We are eager and grateful to have the opportunity to present Naghmeh with this award on Saeed's behalf -- so we as a Commission can show honor to this family, their witness and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Naghmeh Abedini, who lives in Idaho with their two children, said she was honored to accept the award for her husband.
"I had hoped that Saeed would be here to receive the award himself, but I know that Saeed would say that he counts it a privilege to be suffering for Christ knowing that his imprisonment is being used for the furtherance of the Gospel both inside of Iran and also across the world," she said in the release.
"There is nothing more that Saeed desires than to see how his chains have chained the body of Christ together in unity and have brought boldness to believers in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ both here in the U.S. and abroad.
She said, "I am thankful for for recognizing the importance of religious liberty and those who give their lives for the furtherance of the Gospel. My family is humbled and grateful to the ERLC for standing with us and my husband during this trying time of suffering and persecution. "
The abortion/contraception mandate challenged by Hobby Lobby is a regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement the 2010 health-care law. The rule requires coverage of federally approved contraceptives, including the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the "morning-after" pill. Both the IUD and "morning-after" pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can even act after implantation to end the life of a child.
More than 300 parties –- some non-profit organizations and some for-profit corporations -- have combined to file 97 lawsuits against HHS, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has led a diverse effort challenging the mandate. Conestoga Wood Specialties, owned by a pro-life Amish family in Pennsylvania, is a party with Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court case, which deals only with for-profit companies. The cases involving non-profits have yet to work their way up to the high court.
The ERLC signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Christian Legal Society in support of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; its president, Daniel Akin; and Southern Baptist mega-church pastor and author Rick Warren joined in another brief on behalf of the businesses.
Steve Green, Hobby Lobby's president, is the son of David and Barbara Green, who founded the Oklahoma City-based company of 565 stores.
Saeed Abedini, an ordained minister of Iranian descent, was arrested and imprisoned nearly two years ago, and a court sentenced him to eight years in prison for endangering Iran's "national security."
Saeed and Naghmeh, both Muslim converts to faith in Christ, witnessed the Christian conversion of thousands and the growth of the Iranian house church movement in which they were involved. Married in 2004, they left the country in 2005 after the persecution of Christians mounted following the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Saeed Abedini returned to Iran more than 10 times from 2009 to 2012 in an effort to build a government-approved orphanage. Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard arrested him in July 2012, when he was visiting the country in an effort to finish the orphanage. He has reported that Iranian authorities have tortured him and pressured him to deny Christ.
Iranian prison officials have threatened to lengthen Saeed's sentence because he is leading fellow prisoners to faith in Jesus, Baptist Press reported May 30. Naghmeh told BP some formerly Muslim prisoners who placed their faith in Christ through Saeed's witness have already received extended sentences.
Saeed wrote in a letter last year, "Because I want to serve God, I see all of these difficulties as golden opportunities and great doors to serve. There are empty containers who are thirsty for a taste of the Living Water and we can quench their thirst by giving them Jesus Christ."
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, also contributed to this story. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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