(CN) – A federal judge in Colorado blocked the Obama administration from requiring an air conditioning company run by observant Catholics to provide contraceptives without co-pay to its employees.
The health-care law’s required coverage of contraceptives without co-pay is slated to go into effect on Wednesday.
The injunction –a three-month stay which allows for further consideration of the merits of the case — marks the first time a federal county ruled against that provision of the Affordable Care Act.
But in taking this step, U.S. District Senior Judge John Kane left himself plenty of latitude when it comes to a future decision on the merits of the case.
In his opinion, Kane wrote, “on balance, the threatened harm to plaintiffs, impingement of their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, and the concomitant public interest in that right, strongly favor the entry of injunctive relief.”
However, Kane also stressed that the injunctive relief he was providing the plaintiffs only applied to their business.
“It does not enjoin enforcement of preventive care for any other party,” he said.
The lawsuit was brought by four siblings — William, Paul and James Newland and Christine Ketterhagen — who own Hercules Industries and say they “seek to run Hercules in a manner that reflects their sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
Toward that end, during the past 18 months, they have amended the company’s articles of incorporation to reflect the role of religion in its corporate governance. One provision states that its “primary purposes” are to be achieved by “following appropriate religious, ethical or moral standards.” Another states that the company’s board of directors are to prioritize those “religious, ethical or moral standards” at the expense of profitability.
Further, the opinion says, “because the Catholic church condemns the use of contraception, Hercules self-insured plan does not cover abortifacent drugs, contraception, or sterilization.”
Previously, religious institutions that primarily serve individuals of their own faith got a one-year reprieve from the requirement, but business, such are Hercules, are expected to comply.
Hercules challenged the birth control mandate as a violation of its owners’ First Amendment right to freely practice their religion.
The company also argued that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law intended to protect religious institutions from federal requirements that substantially burden their ability to practice religion.
Under the law, the federal government has the ability assert that even if burdensome, such a requirement can still be legal, if it achieves a compelling government interest and does so in the least restrictive way possible.
After consideration of both parties’ positions on the motion, Kane wrote, ” The balance of the equities tip strongly in favor of injunctive relief in this case. Because this case presents ‘questions going to the merits… so serious, substantial, difficult, and doubtful as to make the issue ripe for litigation and deserving of more deliberate investigation,’ I find it appropriate to enjoin the implementation of the preventive care coverage mandate as applied to plaintiffs.”
Afterwards, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, one of the defendants in the case, issued a statement saying she was disappointed in the ruling.
“We are confident that as this case moves through the courts, the policy that most health insurance plans cover contraception will be upheld,” she said. “Preventive services are critical to women’s health and the Administration is committed to ensuring woman have access to the health care they need regardless of where they work. Health decisions should be between women and their doctors, not their employers.”
Among the others who weighed in on Kane’s decision was the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It is unacceptable for employers — especially for-profit companies — to use their personal beliefs as an excuse to deny critical health coverage to the people who work for them,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “This is not religious freedom, this is discrimination. Real religious liberty gives everyone the right to make their own decisions about their own health, including whether and when to use birth control. It doesn’t give anyone the right to impose their beliefs on others.”