Jul 26, 2013

A federal appeals court today upheld an Obama administration regulation requiring most secular companies to include no-cost contraceptives to employees in health insurance plans, rejecting arguments by sectarian groups that the policy infringes on religious freedom.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the ruling.

“Interpreting religious freedom in a way that allows for-profit corporations to make moral and medical decisions for their workers stands that principle on its head,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This court made the right call.”

Added Lynn, “The religious beliefs and practices of the owners of this company are in no way infringed because some of their workers might choose to use birth control.”

The case, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, concerns a firm in East Earl, Pa., that manufactures wood cabinets, doors and other products used in home construction and remodeling. The firm’s Mennonite owners say including birth control in its health-care plan would burden their Christian beliefs.

The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, holding that Conestoga, as a for-profit corporation, does not exercise religion.

“We simply conclude that the law has long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself,” wrote Judge Robert Cowen. “A holding to the contrary – that a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise – would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

The lawsuit is one of several that have been filed challenging the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Most of the cases are being sponsored by Religious Right legal groups and are supported by the Roman Catholic bishops.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Conestoga case, urging the appeals court to uphold the mandate.

“The court's decision prevents companies from imposing their owners' religious beliefs on their employees,” asserted Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United. “It frees employees to make their own medical decisions. And the precedent protects a range of federal laws – designed to help workers and prevent discrimination – from attack by for-profit corporations."