AU defends contraceptive mandate

A Florida company that manufactures electrical products cannot exercise religion and therefore cannot exempt itself from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and allies told a federal appeals court.

By Bob Allen

A Southern Baptist business owner’s religious objection to the use of emergency contraceptives does not trump his employees’ right to obtain health insurance under Obamacare, civil liberties and religious groups said in papers filed Oct. 28 in federal court.

Lawyers for Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to require Beckwith Electric Company, a for-profit corporation in in Largo, Fla., to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s mandated coverage of birth control.

Business owner Thomas Beckwith, an active member of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, objects to use of certain birth-control methods that prevent a fertilized embryo from attaching in the womb, which he believes is abortion, contrary to convictions of his Southern Baptist faith.

barry lynnBarry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Beckwith is entitled to his personal beliefs but as a business owner he cannot force them on others.

Beckwith claims protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed in 1993 that prevents the government from infringing on an individual’s free exercise of religion without a compelling reason. Courts have issued conflicting rulings about whether the intent of the law was to apply only to individuals who exercise religion or to corporations as well.

Monday’s friend-of-the-court brief says the mandate does not impose a “substantial” burden on religious liberty required to trigger RFRA protection, but any restriction is only “incidental and attenuated.”

It says federal law applies the insurance regulation to Beckwith Electric, rather than to the individual owner who holds personal religious beliefs about contraception, and that the company does not supply emergency contraceptive directly but instead purchases insurance policies from a third-party insurance company with its own reimbursement policies.

The brief notes that the insurance company provides a full range of medical treatments, and not emergency contraception alone, and that the insurance company pays for contraceptives only if individual employees decide to use them.

“No secular corporation should be able to deny its employees fair access to necessary medication, including birth control,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “Employers have no constitutional right to impose their moral judgments on their employees.”

The legal argument suggests that accepting Beckwith’s argument could set precedent for allowing employers to withhold insurance coverage for other medical treatments. A Jehovah’s Witness, for example, could choose to exclude blood transfusions from his corporation’s insurance coverage, even for workers who don’t share his faith.

A corporation whose owner believes that mothers should not work outside the home could claim a “substantial burden,” the brief contends, in complying with laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

If applied to non-discrimination laws unrelated to employment, the brief says, the same logic would allow a Jewish-owned apartment company to refuse to rent to individuals who celebrate Easter, because it would violate the owner’s religious beliefs.

Groups joining Americans United on the brief are the 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; 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 Association; Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation and Women of Reform Judaism.

Other groups filing briefs defending Beckwith’s right to refuse coverage include the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Among other things, the Affordable Care Act requires employers with at least 50 employees to provide health-insurance coverage in the form of group health plans. Those plans must include, without cost sharing, preventive care including FDA-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for women of childbearing age.

Exemptions are allowed for houses of worship and other non-profit organizations with religious objections to the contraception rules but not for secular, for-profit corporations.

The AU brief says that as an individual owner, Beckwith is “distinct from the corporation itself, a legally different entity with different rights and responsibilities due to its different legal status.” It argues that a business owner cannot “enjoy corporate benefits while shedding unwanted corporate obligations.”