Judge rejects Mennonite business owners's contraceptive coverage case

President Obama signing the health-care act.
President Obama signing the health-care act. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP)
Posted: January 13, 2013

A judge on Friday rejected claims by the Mennonite owners of a Lancaster County furniture maker that new federal health-care mandates violate their free-speech and religion rights by making them pay for employees' contraceptive services.

In a 34-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg said the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. did not prove that complying with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act amounted to a "substantial burden" on their religious rights or that they qualified as a "religious employer" for an exemption.

The decision was the latest in a string of conflicting rulings across the country, but the first in the Third U.S. Judicial Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Lawyers say the issue could end up before the Supreme Court.

Conestoga, an East Earl-based furniture maker owned and operated by Norman Hahn and his family, had excluded contraceptive services such as the morning-after pill from the insurance coverage it offered its 950 employees.

Last month, the Hahns claimed in a lawsuit that the new law would unconstitutionally force them to offer such options, which they called a "sinful and immoral" affront to the Mennonite beliefs on which they run their company. Violating the law, they said, would subject them to crippling fines - $95,000 a day, or $100 for each employee nationwide.

They also argued that the free-speech rights that the Supreme Court recognized for corporations in the 2010 Citizens United case should be extended to corporations' religious rights.

Citing the potential for significant harm against the company, Goldberg issued a 14-day temporary restraining order late last month and barred government officials from imposing the fines. Lawyers for both sides appeared before the judge last week.

Attorneys for the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services countered that the claim was baseless because the new regulations apply to insurers and secular corporations, not their owners, and because the act gives workers options but does not force any to use them. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a brief siding with the government.

The judge agreed that Conestoga did not prove it qualified for an exemption as a "religious employer" and called its attempt to extend the free-speech rights bestowed by Citizens United "a significant leap" he was not prepared to endorse.

Ultimately, he said, the Hahns did not prove the new mandate constituted a religious burden.

"It is worth emphasizing that the ultimate and deeply private choice to use an abortifacient contraceptive rests not with the Hahns," he wrote, "but with Conestoga's employees."

The Hahns will appeal, their lawyer said after reading the ruling.

"We think it's well thought out," Charles W. Proctor III said. "We just don't agree with it."

A spokesman for the Justice Department, which argued the case, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

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

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