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Contraceptive Coverage Suits: Food Co. Loses Appeal, AGs Want Supreme Court Review, More Colleges File Suit

Contraceptive Coverage Suits: Food Co. Loses Appeal, AGs Want Supreme Court Review, More Colleges File Suit

October 25, 2013 — The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that a Michigan-based natural foods company is not exempt from the federal contraceptive coverage rules because a business cannot exercise religion, Michigan Radio reports (Smith, Michigan Radio, 10/24).

The rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most employers to offer contraceptive coverage to their workers. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and religiously affiliated not-for-profits are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage to their employees. Private companies are not eligible for an exemption or accommodation (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/22).

Eden Foods and its president, Michael Potter, filed suit in Detroit against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, claiming that the rules are an infringement on religious beliefs. The company sought an injunction preventing the government from enforcing penalties against the company for failing to comply with the rules (Smith, MLive, 10/24). Potter filed suit after a dispute with the company's insurance plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, about the coverage. Potter has excluded the coverage from his workers' health plan in the past because of his religious objections to contraception (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/26).

Court's Ruling

In a unanimous decision, the 6th Circuit said that a previous decision dismissing a similar challenge made by another Michigan company, Autocam, required the court to dismiss Eden Foods' case.

"[I]n accordance with the law of the circuit announced in Autocam, we hold that Eden Foods, a secular, for-profit corporation, cannot establish that it can exercise religion, and that Potter cannot establish his standing to challenge obligations placed only upon the corporation, not upon him as an individual," the judges wrote.

The case was remanded back to trial court with an order to dismiss the company's claim because of lack of jurisdiction (MLive, 10/24).

Total of 29 States Call on Supreme Court To Weigh In

In related news, the attorneys general of 29 states have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the federal contraceptive coverage rules, the Washington Post's "GovBeat" reports. Eleven states have asked the high court to review a lower-court opinion that found the rules violated a business' freedom of religion, while 18 have requested that the court review rulings that sided with the federal government.

Led by California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), the 11 states -- Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- urged the Supreme Court to review a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found the rules violate the religious rights of Hobby Lobby and its Christian owners. The states' filing argues there are several problematic outcomes of the lower court's ruling, including restrictions on employee rights, broader power for businesses and limits on states' power to protect public health and gender equality in health care access. They also questioned how a corporation's religious views would ultimately be determined.

Meanwhile, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) and 17 other attorneys general want the court to review a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found that Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties -- which is owned by a Mennonite family -- is not exempt from the contraceptive coverage rules. Jackley said the case goes beyond the contraceptive coverage rules and more broadly questions whether a federal mandate can "force upon an individual or businesses something that is contrary to their religious beliefs."

Jackley is joined by attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia (Chokshi, "GovBeat," Washington Post, 10/24).

Colleges in Mich., Iowa File Suit Against Rules

Meanwhile, Cornerstone University in Michigan and Dordt College in Iowa this week filed a suit, arguing that the federal contraceptive coverage rules violate their religious beliefs, the AP/Detroit News reports. Both schools are being represented pro bono by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law group.

In their suit, the schools claim that they "hold, as a matter of religious conviction, that it would be sinful and immoral for them intentionally to participate in, pay for, facilitate, enable, or otherwise support access to abortion, which destroys human life."

Separately, Cornerstone President Joseph Stowell in a letter to students, faculty and staff, said the "government should not be able to force us to buy or provide insurance that gives access to morally objectionable drugs, devices and services that violate our biblical convictions" (AP/Detroit News, 10/24).