A Colorado business has been thrust into the national debate on President Barack Obama’s health care law after a federal judge ruled last Friday that the Catholic owners do not have to comply with a mandate that private employers provide employees with insurance coverage for birth control.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Kane in Denver came just days before a provision under the Affordable Care Act took effect on Wednesday, which requires that birth control be made available to women at no cost.
The ruling temporarily blocked the government from enforcing the contraception requirement against the owners of Denver-based Hercules Industries Inc., a manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment.
Named in the lawsuit were Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Hercules Industries brought the lawsuit on behalf of its long-time family owners, the Newland family, including William, Paul, James and Andrew Newland, as well as Christine Ketterhagen.
While the ruling only affects Hercules Industries, the case could set an important national precedent for any company to seek relief from contraception coverage mandates on religious grounds.
“On balance, the threatened harm to Plaintiffs, impingement of their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, and the concommittant (sic) public interest in that right strongly favor the entry of injunctive relief,” wrote Kane in his decision.
The debate gained traction after the Catholic Church earlier this year launched a campaign against contraception mandates in Obama’s so-called Obamacare law. More than 20 similar lawsuits are pending around the nation.
Mike Norton, one of the attorneys representing the Newland family who is also counsel for the Christian conservative organization Alliance Defense Fund, told The Colorado Statesman that the Hercules case could set the tone for many pending and looming lawsuits.
“It’s definitely a precedent-setting case,” said the former congressional candidate and U.S. Attorney for Colorado. “It really is the only case of its kind to this date which has an adverse ruling against Obamacare and this HHS mandate.”
Norton added, “I’m sure this sent shockwaves throughout the administration. I don’t think they thought this could possibly happen. For whatever reason, they felt all judges would roll over and go along with the Obamacare ruling.”
Indeed, Sebelius expressed disappointment. She said in a written statement that she expects the case to enter an appeals process.
“We are confident that as this case moves through the courts, the policy that most health insurance plans cover contraception will be upheld,” she wrote. “Preventive services are critical to women’s health and the Administration is committed to ensuring women 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.”
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains agreed with Sebelius, issuing a statement on Monday that shares in the disappointment.
“Access to birth control is a critical health and economic concern for women,” said Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of PPRM. “The Affordable Care Act has guaranteed a new standard of health coverage for every American, regardless of their employer’s personal political views. There is no reason why a private, for-profit business owner should be able to demand a personal exception from this standard — denying his employees the same level of coverage that others will have.”
But Norton spoke of the values shared by the Newland family, who have owned and operated their business for more than 50 years by instilling the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“The current owners and operators are the sons of the original founder who instilled faith and values in the way in which they operated their business, and they have continued that practice, just as it can be expected that their sons and daughters moving into the management of the business will,” said Norton.
“Every American, including family business owners, ought to have the right to practice their faith in their work and in their lives,” he concluded.
Debate over religious and moral objections intensifies
As the contraception provision in Obama’s health care law took effect on Wednesday, political debate over religious and moral objections only intensified. Republicans continued to call for a repeal of the law, while Democrats lauded the early milestone.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., issued a statement praising implementation of the provision.
“As a result of the Affordable Care Act, upwards of 352,000 Coloradan women will no longer have to worry about choosing between paying for basic preventive health care and other necessities, like groceries or their utility bill,” said Udall. “This provision of the Affordable Care Act will provide our mothers, daughters and sisters with better, more affordable access to basic health services — and not to mention much-needed peace of mind.”
In addition to contraception, the provision covers well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, human papillomavirus testing, sexually transmitted infections counseling, screening and counseling for HIV, breastfeeding support and supplies, and domestic violence screening and counseling.
Planned Parenthood also hailed implementation of the provision, stating the “critical” need for the preventive coverage.
“We see the need for affordable health care every single day,” said Cowart. “And for the one in five women who relies on Planned Parenthood at some point in her life, the preventive benefits that begin rolling out will help ease the struggle of deciding whether to pay for birth control or pay for textbooks, groceries, or gas for the car.”
A new lobbying organization in Colorado, Secular Coalition for Colorado, says it will fight to ensure that politics never interfere with access to health care or other public policy issues. The group has already taken aim at a proposed Colorado ballot initiative for November known as personhood, which would assign constitutional rights to an unborn child, thus banning abortion in the state.
Secular Coalition for Colorado is also singling out Colorado Springs-based Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family.
“Colorado is a keystone state when it comes to secular politics,” said Ben Donahue, co-chair of Secular Coalition for Colorado. “It has long been a kind of Mecca for certain groups of Evangelical Christians such as Focus on the Family, with a history of attempting to insert their particular brand of theology into our politics.”
The new lobbying group will likely see a hefty workload in Colorado. Just this year the state legislature tackled several issues concerning religious and moral issues, including bills that would have created so-called “fetal homicide” statutes that critics said was a backdoor to implementing personhood, as well as a measure that would have declared support for allowing insurers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage over religious or moral objections. Those bills died.
On the other side of the debate, another piece of legislation faced by the legislature this year would have required Colorado hospitals to provide notice to patients if there are services not provided due to religious or moral beliefs. That bill also died.
“Groups like ours must be in place to ensure certain groups are not able to cross the line of separation between church and state,” said Donahue. “I hope to be instrumental in battering down egregious legislation, informing the public to the inherent dangers of religious bills, and making sure that the voters of Colorado realize that regardless of their political affiliation or religious beliefs, the separation of religion and government is there to protect all of us.”
But Susan Sutherland, spokeswoman for the 2012 personhood ballot campaign, believes non-theistic individuals do not accept the same values of right and wrong that supporters of personhood and other religious movements accept.
“If you ask a secular person if there’s right or wrong, they will say there is no right or wrong,” she said. “Well, if I took their wallet out of their pocket, I’m sure they’d agree that there is a right and a wrong.”
Secular Coalition for Colorado was also planning to take aim at a ballot initiative proposal pushed by Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund that would have stated that a “sincerely held religious belief” cannot be “burdened” by the government. Proponents withdrew the so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” after having trouble gathering signatures because of stricter rules and regulations in Colorado governing petition gathering.
Tom Minnery, senior vice president at Focus on the Family, said that while his organization is no longer pursuing the Religious Freedom Amendment, he is “very encouraged” by the federal court ruling in favor of a business being able to deny contraception coverage to its employees over religious or moral objections.
“It helps protect the very thing that we had hoped to protect with the religious liberty amendment — freedom of conscience,” he said.