Mennonite firm wins reprieve in battle over new health regs

Posted: December 29, 2012

Two federal judges on Friday gave a Mennonite-owned Lancaster County cabinet manufacturer a two-week reprieve from new health-care mandates that the company's owners say would unconstitutionally force them to cover contraceptive services for female workers.

After teleconferences with the case lawyers, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg imposed a temporary restraining order sparing the Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. from complying with the women's preventive health-care regulations of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Goldberg is presiding over the case and wrote the ruling, but it was signed by U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller.

The act requires employers, or their insurance plans, to offer preventive services, including contraception. Companies who violate its provisions face fines of $100 per day per employee.

Owned by Norman Hahn and his two sons, Conestoga is a specialty wood furniture-maker based in East Earl, about 10 miles southeast of Ephrata, but with 950 employees nationwide. Its new health-care plan takes effect Jan. 1.

In their lawsuit against the U.S. secretaries of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services, the Hahns, who are Mennonite Christians, contend that it would be "sinful and immoral" and a violation of their free-speech and religious rights to make them pay for or support contraception.

Violating the act could cost them $95,000 a day in fines.

In his order, Goldberg wrote that the facts of the case were still being gathered, but that there appeared to be potential for "imminent, irreparable" harm.

"Within a matter of days, Plaintiffs will have to decide between paying substantial fines or committing an act which they have shown to have a likelihood of violating their rights to religious freedom," the order read.

Similar challenges have been filed in other judicial districts, leading to conflicting opinions. The Hahns' claim is the first in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Delaware.

Lawyers for the government have countered that the claim is baseless because the regulations apply to insurers and secular corporations, not their owners, and that the act gives workers options but doesn't force any to use them.

If the Hahns' argument succeeds, "such companies and their owners could claim countless exemptions from an untold number of general commercial laws designed to protect against unfair discrimination in the workplace and to protect the health and well-being of individual employees and their families," the team of assistant attorneys general wrote. "Such a system would not only be unworkable, it would also cripple the government's ability to solve national problems through laws of general application."

Michelle Bennett, one of the government lawyers on the case, declined to comment on the ruling Friday, as did the Hahns' lawyer, Charles Proctor.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also joined the case, siding with the government.

Goldberg's order bars the government from enforcing the act against the furniture company for two weeks. He also ordered all sides to appear Jan. 4 for an evidentiary hearing on the matter.


Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, at jmartin@phillynews.com, or JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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