Jul 30, 2013

A Michigan-based company that produces organic foods does not have a religious liberty right to deny its employees access to birth control, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has advised a federal appeals court.

Americans United and allied organizations yesterday filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case involving Eden Foods, headquartered in Clinton, Mich. The company’s owners are demanding an exemption from a regulation issued under the Affordable Care Act that requires most secular employers to include contraception in employee health-insurance plans.

Michael Potter, chairman and president of Eden Foods, has stated that he believes contraception is “immoral and unnatural”; he has also stated that he does not consider “contraception or abortifacients…to constitute medicine, health care or a means of providing for the well being of persons.”

Americans United Executive Director the Rev. Barry W. Lynn said Potter is entitled to hold that belief, but he has no right to force it on others.

“The owner of Eden Foods is seeking to take his moral judgment on birth control and impose it on everyone in his employ,” Lynn said. “Nothing in our laws gives him the right to use a for-profit corporation as an instrument to force the unwilling to adopt his theological views.”

In the brief filed before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, AU and the other groups note that Potter is citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed in 1993, to assert that his company deserves an exemption from the birth control mandate.

“Such an exemption,” observes the brief, “would significantly burden Eden Foods’s employees – who may not share the religious beliefs of their employers’ individual owners – by interfering with their ability to obtain affordable contraception. And it would insert employers into otherwise private medical decisions made by employees in consultation with their physicians.”

The contraceptive mandate is being challenged in an array of cases, many of them brought by Religious Right or ultra-orthodox Catholic legal groups. Appeals courts have split over the question of whether the mandate can be applied to secular corporations. Recently, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it. 

Many legal observers believe the matter will go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If secular, for-profit corporations win the right to impose their owners' religious beliefs on employees, the consequences will transcend the issue of contraception,” said Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United and a primary author of the brief. “Owners with religious objections to blood transfusions, psychiatric treatment or even gelatin-covered pills would be able to impose their beliefs on their corporations' employees. And the precedent could imperil a wide range of other laws that protect employees and prohibit discrimination. We hope the court will reject the plaintiffs' claims."

In addition to Lipper, the brief in the Eden Foods v. Sebelius case was prepared by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Madison Fellow Caitlin E. O'Connell and the ACLU's Daniel Mach.

Groups joining Americans United on the brief are: American Civil Liberties Union; American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan; Anti-Defamation League; Catholics for Choice; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.; Hindu American Foundation; Interfaith Alliance Foundation; National Coalition of American Nuns; National Council of Jewish Women; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Religious Institute; Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation and Women of Reform Judaism.