Obamacare: US judge lets Catholic-owned firm cut contraception from coverage

A federal judge issued an injunction after Catholic owners of a private company in Colorado argued that Obama's health-care reform violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.

A federal judge on Friday issued a preliminary injunction that allows the Catholic owners of a private company in Colorado to avoid providing their female employees with contraceptives as required under President Obama’s health-care reform law.

The owners of the company, Hercules Industries, objected to the requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), saying it violated their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Company officials say they are striving to build their business around a corporate culture based on principles of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, their existing self-insured health plan does not include coverage for contraception or sterilization.

The health-care reform law, upheld last month by the US Supreme Court, would require them to provide such coverage or pay a penalty tax.

The owners went to court, arguing that the ACA violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.

Government lawyers countered that if the court were to grant Hercules Industries a religious exemption, the government would face a flood of requests for similar exemptions from private companies. The action would undermine the public interest and Congress’s goal of improving the health of women across the country, they said.

US District Judge John Kane disagreed. “These interests are countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion,” he said in an 18-page decision.

The action means that the company will not have to provide contraceptives under the mandated insurance coverage for as long as the federal court case is pending.

Judge Kane set the case for expedited action.

He noted that lawyers for Hercules had suggested to the government a less intrusive alternative, that the government itself administer a free contraceptive insurance plan.

Government lawyers dismissed the suggestion, saying that the alternative would create greater logistical and administrative obstacles for women than if the services were available in every employer’s health care plan.

The judge said his ruling applied only in the Hercules case. “The government’s arguments are largely premised upon a fear that granting an exemption to [Hercules] will necessarily require granting similar injunctions to all other for-profit, secular corporations voicing religious objections to the preventative care coverage mandate,” he said.

“This injunction is, however, premised upon the alleged substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion – not to any alleged burden on any other party’s free exercise of religion,” Kane wrote.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said she was disappointed by the ruling.

“The Affordable Care Act has guaranteed a new standard of health coverage for every American, regardless of their employer’s personal political views,” she said. “There is no reason why a private, for-profit business owner should be able to demand a personal exemption from this standard – denying his employees the same level of coverage that others will have.”

Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett praised the judge’s decision. He said it reflects the underlying spirit of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – the idea that government interests must be crafted, if possible, in a way that avoids unnecessary burdens on religious exercise.

“A society like ours – with a Constitution and federal religious-freedom protections like ours – will regard it as often both wise and just to accommodate religious believers and institutions by exempting them from requirements that would force them to compromise their integrity,” Professor Garnett said in a statement.

“We Americans do not agree about what religious freedom means, but we have long agreed that it matters, and should be protected through law,” he said. 

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