Birth Control Battle: Federal Court Upholds Contraceptive Mandate

Religious freedom means the right to make decisions for yourself, not others.

Efforts by conservative religious organizations to restrict Americans’ access to birth control are ongoing. For the time being, the action has shifted to the courts.

A federal court in Missouri handed down an important ruling last week, dismissing a lawsuit brought by O’Brien Industrial Holdings, a St. Louis firm that mines and processes a variety of ceramic material for heavy industry.

This may not sound like a particularly religious enterprise to you. That’s because it’s not. The owner of the firm, Frank O’Brien, is a devout Catholic. He believes he has the right to use his religion as a guideline for determining what type of health care his employees will receive.

The problem is, the new health care law requires most employers to provide birth control as part of a baseline health insurance package. It’s the insurance companies that provide this coverage, not the firms. But to people like O’Brien, that’s not enough.

Francis Manion, a lawyer at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, represented O’Brien’s firm in court. Manion argued that the contraceptive mandate violates O’Brien’s freedom of religion as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law designed to protect the religious liberty of individuals.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson rejected that line of argument.

“Frank O’Brien is not prevented from keeping the Sabbath, from providing a religious upbringing for his children, or from participating in a religious ritual such as communion. Instead, plaintiffs remain free to exercise their religion, by not using contraceptives and by discouraging employees from using contraceptives,” Jackson wrote.

 “The burden of which plaintiffs complain is that funds, which plaintiffs will contribute to a group health plan, might, after a series of independent decisions by health care providers and patients covered by [O’Brien Industrial Holding]’s plan, subsidize someone else’s participation in an activity that is condemned by plaintiffs’ religion,” continued Jackson. “This Court rejects the proposition that requiring indirect financial support of a practice, from which plaintiff himself abstains according to his religious principles, constitutes a substantial burden on plaintiff’s religious exercise.”

She added, “RFRA is a shield, not a sword. 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 makes a crucial point here. O’Brien has the right to believe whatever he wants about birth control and other medical issues. He does not have the right to force his employees to adopt those views or live under his religion’s rules.

The judge understands what religious freedom really means: the right to make decisions for yourself. An indirect and circuitous process that enables someone else to access birth control at no cost simply does not infringe on O’Brien’s religious freedom. He can still go to church, pray or engage in other forms of worship.

This ruling is welcome, but the issue is far from over. A federal court in Colorado reached the opposite conclusion earlier this year in a case involving a heating and air conditioning firm, and the ACLJ has vowed to appeal Jackson’s ruling.

Stay tuned, and stay alert. The Religious Right and the Catholic bishops aren’t giving up on their war against birth control just yet.