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Appeals court temporarily blocks contraceptive mandate for St. Louis employer



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A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked provisions of the federal health care reform act that would force a Missouri-based manufacturing company to cover contraceptives under its employee health benefit plans.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 last week that St. Louis-based O'Brien Industrial Holdings L.L.C. will not be required to provide its employees access to birth control, emergency contraceptives and other women's preventative care — as mandated under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — while its appeal is being reviewed.

O'Brien Industrial Holdings has asked the appellate court to overturn a U.S. District Court judge's dismissal of its lawsuit seeking a permanent exemption from the reform law's contraception rule. The company and its Catholic owner, Frank O'Brien, sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in March, claiming that the requirement violated its right to freely express religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The company was the first secular, for-profit employer to challenge the contraceptive mandate on religious grounds.

The appellate court's two-sentence ruling stated only that it would grant O'Brien Industrial Holdings temporary relief from the rule, pending the outcome of its appeal. The ruling offered no details regarding the court's rationale in reaching its decision, and made no comments relative to the legal merit of the company's claim.

Nevertheless, in a statement released following the court ruling, attorneys at the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice — which is representing O'Brien Industrial Holdings — called the appellate court's decision a “significant victory.”


“The order sends a message that the religious beliefs of employers must be respected by the government,” Francis Manion, senior counsel of the ACLJ, said in the statement.

ACLJ attorneys claimed in the original lawsuit that by forcing most employers to provide cost-free coverage for contraceptives — the use of which the Catholic Church has historically opposed — the reform law illegally compels Mr. O'Brien to choose between managing his business “in accordance with his religious beliefs or paying substantial penalties to the government.”

In her Sept. 28 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Carol Jackson dismissed the company's case entirely, ruling that that company executives' right to religious freedom had not been substantially burdened because they were only being asked to provide the coverage indirectly through the company's health insurer, and the actual use of the contraceptives was ultimately in the hands of the plan participants.

“This court rejects the proposition that requiring indirect financial support of a practice, from which (Mr. O'Brien) abstains according to his religious principles, constitutes a substantial burden on plaintiff's religious exercise,” Judge Jackson said in her decision.

Since March, several dozen other secular, for-profit employers have filed similar lawsuits seeking temporary and permanent relief from the contraceptive mandate on religious grounds. So far, three U.S. District Court judges in Colorado, Michigan and Washington have granted employers temporary exemptions, while federal judges in Nebraska and Oklahoma have dismissed cases brought to them by private and public employers.