St. Louis judge tosses challenge to birth-control mandate
BY ROBERT PATRICK St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
10/02/12 at 6:33 AM
ST. LOUIS - A federal judge has dismissed a claim that the 2010 health-care reform law's contraception mandate violates an employer's religious freedom. It is believed to be the first decision on the merits among more than two dozen such lawsuits across the country.
O'Brien Industrial Holdings, owned by Frank O'Brien, a Catholic, filed notice of appeal on Monday.
The law requires coverage of prescription birth control pills and implants at no cost to enrollees in all private health insurance policies, starting in 2013.
U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson ruled late last week that the "regulations do not impose a 'substantial burden' on either Frank O'Brien or OIH, and do not violate (their) rights."
O'Brien's lawyer, Francis Manion, said he thinks Jackson's ruling is "not well-supported by the law or logic." He added, "Court of appeals, here we go."
Among other cases involving at least part of the Affordable Health Care Act is one filed by Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby Stores and its founders who challenged a mandate that employer health insurance policies must offer certain kinds of potentially abortion-inducing birth control.
That suit was filed last month in Oklahoma City against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and listed Hobby Lobby, Mardel Inc. and family members of company founder David Green as the plaintiffs.
It said the mandate will require the company's insurance plan to cover birth control products such as Plan B, Ella - so-called morning-after pills - and IUDs. The three products can prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the wall of the uterus, which constitutes an abortion, the suit says.
In the St. Louis case, O'Brien sued the federal government in March, alleging that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violates the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act, forcing a choice between moral beliefs and fines.
Jackson said O'Brien was free to engage in religious practice by not using contraception and encouraging employees not to either.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is a shield, not a sword," the judge wrote. "It protects individuals from substantial burdens on religious exercise that occur when the government coerces action one's religion forbids, or forbids action one's religion requires; it is not a means to force one's religious practices upon others. RFRA does not protect against the slight burden on religious exercise that arises when one's money circuitously flows to support the conduct of other free-exercise-wielding individuals who hold religious beliefs that differ from one's own."
Jackson also rejected the other lines of attack, saying that the mandate does not provide preferential treatment to any religion, and was passed to improve women's access to health care and lessen the disparity between health-care costs for men and women.
Government lawyers have declined to comment.
Manion said Jackson's decision is at odds with acknowledgments from public officials that the law is a burden on people's beliefs.
President Barack Obama and Sebelius have said the mandate can impact religious liberty, and pledged to work with religious organizations.
Manion and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, whose statistics were quoted by Jackson, said this was the first ruling on merits among 30 such suits.
Cases filed by several religious universities have been dismissed over timing issues. In July, a Colorado firm won a temporary delay to implementation of the law pending its suit; the government is appealing.
Original Print Headline: Judge axes challenge to birth-control mandate