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Building Precedent: Another Court Finds Against the Obamacare “Contraceptive Mandate”

Following the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer in the case, Hobby Lobby v. Burwell [1], the District Court for the Western District of Michigan held on January 7 that the government cannot compel certain family businesses to pay health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations against the business owners’ religious beliefs.  The court ruled in the case, Autocam v. Burwell, that such American business owners have the right and freedom to do business in a manner fully consistent with their religious convictions.

John Kennedy is the CEO of Autocam, a Michigan for-profit company that sells medical supplies.  He and his family are the owners of Autocam.  Under the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, the Kennedy family faced up to $19 million a year in penalty fines unless they provided employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization, in violation of the family’s Catholic faith.  The Kennedy’s argued in court that the Catholic Church’s teachings prohibit them from participating in, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise cooperating in the practices of abortion, contraception and sterilization.

Similar to the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case, Autocam did not qualify for any religious employer exception or accommodation under Obamacare.  The government left them little choice – pay for abortions, contraception and sterilization, or be subjected to ruinous fines that would effectively shut down their business.

John Kennedy designed Autocam’s health insurance plan to offer superior coverage for his employees.  Under the plan, Autocam employees do not pay any premiums and each insured employee is given up to $1,500 per year for a health savings account which they are free to use to purchase contraceptives and other health and medical products and services if they wish.  The Kennedy family in no way sought to impose their religious views on others – they simply asked not to be forced by the government on threat of financial destruction to operate their business in a way that violates their right to free exercise of religion.

When the Kennedy family brought their case to court in 2012, the court ruled against them.  They continued their legal battle, however, until it reached the Supreme Court, where it was held in abeyance pending the Court’s decision in the similar Hobby Lobby case.  On June 30 last year, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unlawful under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to force Hobby Lobby, a small, family-owned, closely-held, for-profit corporation, to comply with Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate in violation of its owners’ religious beliefs.  The Supreme Court also held that such coercion violates the owners’ First Amendment right to religious liberty.  The day after handing down this ruling, the Supreme Court vacated the judgement against Autocam by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and sent the case back to the lower court “for further consideration in light of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

On remand, the District Court for the Western District of Michigan correctly applied the precedent set by the Supreme Court on this issue.  Echoing the Hobby Lobby decision, the court held that it is unlawful for the government to force Autocam, a private, family business, “to provide its employees with health coverage for contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and related patient education and counselling to which plaintiff objects on religious grounds.”

What Does This All Mean?

1. Contraception is still legal, and the right to contraception remains intact.

Contrary to misleading statements made by key [2] political figures, protecting the religious liberty of business owners does not affect the legality of contraception [3].  Women are as free as ever to choose to purchase and use contraception.  The government simply cannot force employers to pay for it if such payment amounts to material cooperation in an act that is against the employers’ religious faith.  The business owners’ constitutional right to religious liberty under the First Amendment and their statutory rights under the RFRA demand no less.

2.  Precedent builds for other lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act

The Autocam decision bodes well for similar pending lawsuits, and also for future ones.  It is a good example of a correct interpretation and application of Supreme Court precedent on this matter.  It is also laying the groundwork for a body of court precedent supporting religious liberty in the face of Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.  Furthermore, such cases can be used by members of Congress as evidence that legislative efforts are needed to amend the Affordable Care Act and its implementing regulations to adequately protect religious liberty.

With Supreme Court precedent on their side, American business owners can with greater confidence speak up and stand up for their right to religious freedom when they are confronted with the contraceptive mandate.  It is through the courage of business owners of faith that Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate has been challenged in court and exposed as illegal in this context.