ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A federal judge in Michigan has granted the second temporary injunction against the federal contraception mandate to plaintiffs who argue that it violates their right to freely practice their religion in business decisions.
“This is not only a victory for our clients, but for religious freedom," said Erin Mersino, lead counsel on the case for the Thomas More Law Center, which is representing Weingartz Supply Company and its president, Daniel Weingartz.
“The federal court has found that our clients have a likelihood of success and would be irreparably harmed by the unconstitutional overreaching of the HHS mandate,” she explained in a statement.
On Oct. 31, U.S. district Judge Robert Cleland granted a preliminary injunction to block the enforcement of the mandate against the family-owned-and-operated outdoor power equipment company while the case continues to move through the court system.
Weingartz, a practicing Catholic, has filed a lawsuit to challenge the Health and Human Services mandate, which requires employers to provide health-insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences.
In filing the lawsuit, he was joined by Legatus, a nonprofit organization of Catholic business owners and CEOs seeking to live out their faith in their professional and personal lives.
Both Weingartz Supply Company and Legatus currently offer employee health-care plans that specifically exclude contraception, in accord with Church teaching. Neither qualifies for the strictly defined religious exemption to the mandate, which applies only to nonprofit groups that exist to inculcate religious values and primarily employ and serve only members of their own faiths.
In the decision, Judge Cleland granted the temporary injunction for Weingartz Supply Company, citing the fact that it would be required to provide the objectionable coverage starting on Jan.1, 2013.
In his opinion, he acknowledged that the mandate poses a risk "of substantially infringing the sincere exercise of religious beliefs” and said that the “loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury."
While the Obama administration has argued that for-profit companies cannot exercise religion, Cleland pointed to a previous court ruling that a corporation can “assert the free-exercise rights of its owners” when it is closely held and is “‘merely the instrument through and by which (the plaintiffs) exercise their religious beliefs.’”
At the same time, Judge Cleland “denied without prejudice” the motion for a preliminary injunction for Legatus, saying that the organization does not yet need such an injunction because it qualifies for a temporary safe harbor from the mandate until Aug. 1, 2013.
The federal government has promised that during the safe-harbor period it will issue an accommodation to respect the religious freedom of non-exempt religious groups that object to the mandate.
However, this process, which was started in March 2012, is still in its early stages, and numerous religious groups have said that the suggestions put forth by the government still fail to adequately protect religious liberty.
Judge Cleland directed the federal government to file a statement on the status of the amendment process each month and made it clear that Legatus can bring its claim before the court again at a later time.
In total, nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed by more than 110 plaintiffs to challenge the contraception mandate. Most of these cases are still waiting to receive a court ruling, while a few have been dismissed as being premature, similar to the decision given for Legatus.
In July, Colorado-based Hercules Industries secured the first temporary injunction against the mandate. So far, Missouri-based O’Brien Industrial Holdings is the only case that has lost in federal court, although it has said it is appealing the decision.