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Judge Issues Mixed Decisions on Contraceptive Coverage Suits; Attorneys Argue Hobby Lobby Case

Judge Issues Mixed Decisions on Contraceptive Coverage Suits; Attorneys Argue Hobby Lobby Case

November 2, 2012 — A federal judge on Wednesday granted a temporary injunction to a Michigan for-profit business that is challenging the federal contraceptive coverage rules, but he dismissed a lawsuit filed by a not-for-profit Catholic group, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports.

The first lawsuit was filed by the owner of Weingartz Supply, who objects to offering employees contraceptive coverage because of his Catholic beliefs (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 11/1). If a company refuses to comply with the federal rules requiring it to offer contraceptive coverage, it would risk having to pay an annual penalty of $2,000 per employee, totaling about $280,000 a year, starting in 2014, according to MLive (Eggert, MLive, 11/1).

The judge did not rule on the merits of the suit, but he agreed that Weingartz Supply should be shielded from having to comply with the law or risk penalties while the case is resolved ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 11/1).

Weingartz Supply had "some" chance of winning its legal challenge, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland wrote, adding, "The Government will suffer some, but comparatively minimal harm if the injunction is granted." By contrast, "The harm in delaying the implementation of a statute that may later be deemed constitutional must yield to the risk presented here of substantially infringing the sincere exercise of religious beliefs" of Weingartz Supply's Catholic owner, he added (MLive, 11/1).

Cleland is the second federal judge to block enforcement of the contraceptive coverage rules for a private business (Baynes, Reuters, 11/1).

Legatus Suit

Meanwhile, Cleland dismissed a lawsuit filed by Legatus, a not-for-profit Catholic group that HHS has said qualifies for an accommodation to the contraceptive coverage requirement.

HHS has said that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide no-cost coverage directly to beneficiaries. Legatus would most likely qualify for this accommodation and, therefore, does not have grounds for a suit, the judge ruled (Healthwatch," The Hill, 11/1).

Attorneys Argue Hobby Lobby Case

In related news, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton on Thursday heard arguments over the retail chain Hobby Lobby's challenge to the contraceptive coverage rules, the AP/Huffington reports (Talley, AP/Huffington Post, 11/1).

Hobby Lobby argues that providing contraceptive coverage for its workers would violate the freedom of speech and religious beliefs of founder and CEO David Green and his family. The suit also claims that certain contraceptives -- including emergency contraceptives and intrauterine devices -- can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, which the family considers to be an abortion (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/26).

On Thursday, Kyle Duncan -- an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby -- argued that the business exercises religion regularly and openly and should be offered a narrow exemption to the rules. He said the company covers other contraceptives but does not want to be penalized for refusing to cover those that it believes cause an abortion.

Department of Justice Attorney Michelle Bennett said that the government does not question the sincerity of the owners' religious beliefs but that a for-profit business is a secular entity. The drugs in question are necessary for women's health and to prevent pregnancy, she added.

Heaton said the case "obviously does raise some new issues" and promised to "move promptly" on the issue. However, he noted that he is unaware of any precedent granting corporations the right to free exercise of religion (Mecoy, The Oklahoman, 11/2).