In the first legal ruling against the controversial HHS mandate, a federal judge has granted a temporary injunction protecting a Catholic-run business.
Judge John L. Kane of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado approved the injunction on the afternoon of July 27.
He said the harm of preventing the government from enforcing Congress-approved regulations “pales in comparison to the possible infringement upon plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom legal group sought the injunction as part of its lawsuit on behalf of Hercules Industries, a Colorado-based manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning units.
“We’re thrilled,” said Matt Bowman, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.
“This is the first court to answer the question of whether Obamacare can be used to violate religious freedom, and the answer is ‘no,’” he told CNA July 27.
“The very first ruling on the question of religious freedom was a ruling stating that religious freedom prevails over government attempts to force believers to choose between their faith and their livelihood,” Bowman said.
Hercules Industries’ owners, William Newland, Paul Newland, James Newland, and Christine Ketterhagen, all identify as practicing Catholics. The mandate would have affected the self-insured company’s health plan when it renews on Nov. 1.
Under the HHS mandate, companies that refuse to comply face fines of $100 per day, per employee. For a company like Hercules Industries, which employs 300 people, those fines could be millions of dollars each year.
The company and its owners challenged the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring employers’ health plans to cover sterilization, contraception, and abortion-causing drugs as preventive care for women.
The mandate’s narrow religious exemption does not include many Catholic health systems, charities and colleges, despite Catholic objections to covering the procedures and drugs. It also does not apply to secular businesses.
Bowman said that although the mandate only protects the Newland family and their business, it sets an example for other legal challenges already underway.
“Every judge in these cases is going to look at what other judges said,” Bowman explained.
“The reasoning behind the injunction is that every American, including family business owners, is entitled to practice their faith without the government forcing them to violate their beliefs or face heavy fines or penalties.”
Judge Kane said the government’s arguments against the injunction are “countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion.”
He cited a Tenth Circuit Court ruling which said that there is a “strong public interest in the free exercise of religion” even where that interest may conflict with another statutory scheme.
Michael Norton, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the lawsuit is “very important” because it determines “whether family-owned small businesses have the freedom to practice their faith as they wish in the public square and in the public arena, or whether they will be obliged to offer health insurance coverage that violates that faith.”
“Our view is that every American should be free to live and do business according to their faith. They should not have to choose between their faith and doing what some bureaucrat or politician thinks ought to be the way they live out their faith,” Norton said in a July 26 interview.
Two lawsuits against the HHS mandate have been dismissed.
On July 17, a federal judge in Nebraska rejected a suit filed by seven state attorneys general, Catholic groups and two Catholic individuals on the grounds they did not prove immediate harm. On July 18, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. dismissed the suit filed by Belmont Abbey College on the grounds it was premature.
Updated at 5:09 p.m. CST. Adds details about fines, comments from Judge Kane and Michael Norton, and background on related cases.