WASHINGTON — The battle over religious freedom is intensifying as the controversial federal contraception mandate goes into effect for many for-profit employers at the start of the new year.
“We shouldn’t have to give up our First Amendment rights to make a living,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, which seeks to bring a faithful Catholic voice to the public square.
Ferguson told Catholic News Agency on Jan. 3 that employers who did not win a court order blocking the mandate are now “placed in a horrible position, choosing between their livelihood and their faith.”
On Jan. 1, 2013, new employee health-insurance plans began for many companies throughout the U.S., causing the new federal contraception mandate to go into effect for them. The controversial mandate requires coverage of contraception — including drugs that can cause early abortions — and sterilization.
While the mandate includes a narrow exemption for some religious employers and a one-year delay with the promise of a revision for others, for-profit companies have not been offered any accommodation for religious liberty. The government maintains that the right to religious freedom does not extend to owners of secular businesses.
The mandate has prompted dozens of lawsuits from both for-profit and nonprofit organizations asking for temporary injunctions to block the enforcement of the mandate while they argue their cases in court.
On Dec. 30, U.S. district Judge Lawrence Zatkoff granted an injunction to Tom Monaghan, the founder and former owner of Domino's Pizza, who now owns the property management company for a Michigan office park.
The judge acknowledged that the mandate would place a “substantial burden” on Monaghan’s ability to freely exercise his Catholic religion and could cause him to suffer “irreparable harm.”
“It is in the best interest of the public that Monaghan not be compelled to act in conflict with his religious beliefs,” the judge ruled in granting the injunction shortly before the end of the year.
Other employers scored last-minute victories as well, including a Mennonite-owned wood manufacturing company in Pennsylvania and a dairy farming corporation in Missouri.
So far, 10 for-profit employers have received injunctions from the mandate, while three have been denied them. Those employers that were not granted injunctions can still argue their cases in court, but they may be subject to fines for violating the mandate during this process.
Grote Industries, an Indiana-based vehicle lighting manufacturer, is one of the companies that was denied a request for an injunction. However, attorney Matt Bowman said that the legal team representing the company “has asked the judge to reconsider her recent decision.”
He explained to CNA that the appeals court in the judge’s circuit “granted an injunction to another business the day after she denied Grote Industries’ request.”
Hobby Lobby, the family-owned arts and crafts retailer, was also denied an injunction by both a district and appeals court. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor turned down the company’s emergency injunction appeal on Dec. 26, removing hope of immediate relief from the high court.
However, Kyle Duncan, an attorney representing Hobby Lobby in its case, said that the company plans to continue providing health insurance to its employees without paying for the drugs that it finds morally objectionable.
To continue following their Christian beliefs, the company’s owners now risk fines of $1.3 million per day.
Ferguson said that the commitment shown by Hobby Lobby and its owners is “incredibly admirable.”
The company is “a true American success story,” started in a garage in Oklahoma, she explained, and Congress “ought to be paying attention” when a government regulation threatens the existence of such a business.
Still, Ferguson remains “cautiously optimistic” as the lawsuits continue to move forward, observing that it is “encouraging that we’re winning in most of the court cases.”
Prayer and efforts to educate others about the mandate are critical, she emphasized, urging the faithful to be active in their parishes, contact their congressional representatives and write letters to the editor to raise awareness and support for religious freedom.
The unprecedented encroachment posed by the mandate could lead to a further erosion of fundamental freedoms unless people are willing to stand up now, Ferguson explained.
She said, “Catholics should be gravely concerned about this.”