July 30, 2012 — A federal judge in Colorado on Friday granted a temporary injunction sought by the Catholic owners of a for-profit company who sued over the federal contraceptive coverage rules, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports. The decision marks the first time a federal court has ruled against the provision (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/27). A federal judge in Nebraska recently dismissed a separate suit filed by several states' attorneys general (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 7/27).
The contraceptive coverage rules, which are slated to take effect on Aug. 1, implement a provision of the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. In February, the Obama administration announced that it would alter the rules so that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their workers, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide no-cost coverage directly to women.
HHS also exempted certain religious institutions from the requirement and granted a one-year compliance period to other religiously affiliated groups while it continues to discuss the issue (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/27). Hercules Industries, a heating and cooling equipment company that is the plaintiff in the case, does not qualify for the exemption or the compliance period because it is not a religious entity (CQ HealthBeat, 7/27).
The self-insured company has 265 employees and does not offer coverage for birth control, sterilization or abortion-inducing drugs (Baynes, Reuters, 7/27). In the suit, the company's owners said the rules violate their religious beliefs by forcing them to provide birth control to their workers.
Details of Ruling
District Judge John Kane said that the requirement could violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 statute that mandates that the federal government consider the rights of religious groups when setting policy. He blocked the rules until the court reviews the case further and said Hercules could not be financially penalized for not complying in the interim.
"These questions merit more deliberate investigation," Kane wrote, adding, "Defendants bear the burden of demonstrating that refusing to exempt Plaintiffs from the preventive care coverage mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering their compelling interest" (Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal, 7/27).
The decision only applies to the plaintiff and does not affect other entities, Kane noted (Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 7/28). The injunction is "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," he wrote, adding, "It does not enjoin enforcement of the preventive care coverage mandate against any other party" (Kapur, TPMDC, 7/29).
Matt Bowman -- a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Hercules -- argued that the ruling could provide a precedent for other businesses to seek injunctions, as well as boost other cases challenging the rules (Wall Street Journal, 7/27).
In a statement, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressed disappointment with the decision. "This lawsuit was not brought by a religious organization. Rather, it was brought by a for-profit commercial enterprise whose purpose is to sell HVAC equipment," she said. She added that a woman's health care decisions should involve her physician, not her employer (Reuters, 7/27).
Some Republicans, Religious Groups Pressure GOP Leaders to Take Action Against Rules
Although top House Republicans have signaled that they will not pursue legislation challenging the contraceptive coverage requirement, a few GOP House lawmakers and religious groups are still pushing for congressional action, Politico reports.
On Wednesday, "a small group" of GOP House members asked Republican leaders to hold a vote to repeal the rules. However, the meeting was described as a listening session and the lawmakers were not promised any votes. Several GOP lawmakers plan to hold a press conference on Aug. 1, when the rules take effect.
Conservative religious groups also are upset with Republicans' waning attention to the issue. The groups and lawmakers plan to highlight the legal challenges in the coming weeks. For example, the Catholic Association plans to launch a media campaign urging its supporters to contact members of Congress (Haberkorn/Smith, Politico, 7/27).
Editorial Urges Republicans, Democrats To 'Work Together' on Health Care, Religious Issues
In his ruling, Judge Kane hinted "that the apparent clash between health care policy and religious freedom could be avoided if the government simply came up with other ways to provide birth control services to women who can't afford them," a Christian Science Monitor editorial notes.
The editorial notes that "alternative means of achieving universal health care -- including help for women who can't afford birth control -- are available." The current legal challenges to the requirement and the November elections "might push Washington" to consider alternatives, or "Republicans and Democrats in Congress might decide to work together now to ensure religious liberty is preserved even with greater access to health care," the editorial concludes (Christian Science Monitor, 7/29).