DETROIT â€” While much of the controversy over the U.S. governmentâ€™s contraception and abortifacient drug mandate has centered on the U.S. bishopsâ€™ objection to Church-sponsored institutions being required to offer the coverage, a lawsuit brought by an organization for Catholic business leaders and a local businessman claims the mandate also violates individual First Amendment rights.
The U.S. government is expected to respond next week to a lawsuit filed by Legatus, Weingartz Supply Co. and businessman Dan Weingartz of Utica over the looming Department of Health and Human Servicesâ€™ mandate, which goes into effect for some businesses Aug. 1.
Erin Mersino, trial counsel at the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, said July 23 that U.S. Department of Justice attorney Ethan Davis is expected to file the governmentâ€™s answer to the lawsuit filed May 7 to block conscience-violating provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act â€” nicknamed Obamacare.
The provisions require all employers of 50 or more full-time employees (or part-time employees adding up to the equivalent of 50 full-time employees) to provide health insurance that includes free contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
While a narrow exemption exists for religious groups â€” which the U.S. bishops have said is so strict it would apply almost exclusively to parishes â€” Mersino noted there is no conscience protection for for-profit Catholic business owners who believe the mandate would force them to participate in what their religion views as a sin.
On the other hand, Mersino pointed out, those who believe any form of insurance violates their religious beliefs, such as Muslims, are exempt from the requirements.
For those not exempted from the mandate, failure to provide a complying health insurance plan by Jan. 1, 2013, or whenever a new plan year begins after Aug. 1 this year could mean crippling penalties of up $300,000 a year, Mersino said.
The government sought and was granted an extension until Aug. 7 to respond to Legatusâ€™ suit, but Mersino said she expected to file a temporary restraining order to keep the mandate from going into effect Aug. 1.
Dan Weingartz, president of Weingartz Supply Co. based in Utica, said he joined the lawsuit because, under the HHS mandate, â€śweâ€™re going to be forced to a decision to violate our Catholic religious principles or violate federal law.â€ť
Weingartz, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, said he believes it is wrong for the government to put businesses in the â€śvery difficult position of deciding whether we can offer health care to our employees, which we have always done.â€ť
â€śIt puts us at odds with our employees,â€ť he said.
Weingartz Supply has 170 employees, 110 of them full-time.
He declined to speculate on what he would do if the lawsuit should be unsuccessful. â€śWe have a lot of hope for our lawsuit,â€ť he said.
John Hunt, national executive director of Legatus, said there is great anxiety in the Catholic business community concerning the HHS mandate.
â€śIn our Legatus family, the unhappiness over this mandate is palpable,â€ť said Hunt, whose organization has about 4,000 members (2,100 chief executive officers and their spouses).
Altogether, those CEOs head companies with employees numbering more than 2 million, Hunt said.
While Weingartz is the only Legatus member to officially join the suit, Hunt said every member with whom he had spoken has expressed appreciation about its filling.
â€śAll of our members consider this to be a serious threat to religious liberty,â€ť Hunt said.
Although smaller companies and organizations would not face the same penalties as a larger company, they do face a requirement to offer contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs if they offer any sort of health plan at all.
Hunt said the mandate would make it impossible for Legatus itself to provide health insurance for its 17 employees.
Whether there will be prompt judicial action on the suit is entirely up to U.S. District Judge Richard Cleland. Whether he takes up the issue promptly or waits is solely his decision, Mersino said.
â€śWeâ€™ve had temporary restraining orders pending for two years; weâ€™re had temporary restraining orders acted on in 24 hours,â€ť she said.