Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mennonnite-Owned Business Denied Preliminary Injunction Against Contraceptive Coverage Mandate

In Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, (ED PA, Jan 11, 2013), a Pennsylvania federal district court refused to issue a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage Mandate in a suit brought by a small wood specialties manufacturing company and its five Mennonite Christian owners (the Hahn family). The Hahns believe it would sinful for them in any way contribute to the use of abortifacient contraception.

The court held that secular, for-profit corporations lack free exercise rights under the 1st Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United that corporations have free expression rights. The court also rejected the argument that the corporation could assert its shareholders’ free exercise, saying:
It would be entirely inconsistent to allow the Hahns to enjoy the benefits of incorporation, while simultaneously piercing the corporate veil for the limited purpose of challenging these regulations.
Moving to the owner’s own assertion of their free exercise rights, the court held that for 1st Amendment purposes, the Mandate is a neutral law of general applicability supported by a legitimate governmental interest.  The court also rejected the Hahn family’s claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, concluding that the Mandate does not impose a substantial burden on their exercise of religion:
First, we reject the notion … that a plaintiff shows a burden to be substantial simply by claiming that it is….  
We also find that any burden imposed by the regulations is too attenuated to be considered substantial.  A series of events must first occur before the actual use of an abortifacient would come into play….. 
Finally, we understand, and have carefully considered the fact that the Hahns may be … more concerned with the burden imposed on their religion by the requirement that they provide insurance coverage that may be used to “pay for, facilitate, or otherwise support abortifacient drugs.” … We respect and fully appreciate this concern, and in no way dispute or denigrate its legitimacy and its effect as a burden upon the Hahns’ religious beliefs. However, a line must be drawn delineating when the burden on a plaintiff’s religious exercise becomes “substantial.”  We conclude that, here, that line does not extend to the speculative “conduct of third parties with whom plaintiffs have only a commercial relationship.”
The court also rejected plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause and free speech challenges to the ACA Mandate. (See prior related posting.)

Religion Clause readers may be interested in my new essay posted on Religion Dispatches discussing small business challenges to the contraceptive coverage Mandate.