First Secular Business Sues Over HHS Mandate

A Missouri business owner says his right to religious freedom is being threatened.

(photo: Shutterstock)

ST. LOUIS (CNA/EWTN News)—A Missouri business owner has become the first employer of a for-profit, secular company to bring a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

“Religious liberty is not limited to institutions,” said attorney Francis Manion, who says his client believes the administration is forcing him to violate his conscience under the new federal rule.

Manion told CNA on March 15 that the lawsuit is important for private business owners because it asserts that “they too have religious rights, and the government has to respect those rights under the Constitution.”

The most recent lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was filed March 15 in a federal district court in St. Louis.

Manion, who serves as senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, is representing Frank O’Brien and the company that he chairs, O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC.

The holding company, which is based in St. Louis, operates numerous businesses that explore, mine and process refractory and ceramic raw materials. Its products go to more than 40 countries around the world.

O’Brien says his right to religious freedom is being threatened by the HHS federal mandate.

His company, which employees 87 people, now joins numerous religious organizations that have brought lawsuits against the mandate, including EWTN, the National Catholic Register’s parent company.

The most recent legal challenge asks the court to issue a permanent injunction to halt the implementation of the mandate for all those who have religious objections to it.

Manion said that the mandate would require business people such as O’Brien to abandon their religious beliefs in order to continue running their companies.

O’Brien says that his Catholic faith serves as a foundation for the operation of his business and his company’s website explains that its mission is “to make our labor a pleasing offering to the Lord while enriching our families and society.”

The business owner has instituted multiple programs to help his employees in purchasing homes, paying for their children’s college education and saving for retirement.

Manion explained that O’Brien is not trying to prevent his employees from accessing contraception, which is already widely available at low cost, but simply objects to paying for it against his beliefs.

He noted that the state of Missouri currently has a contraception mandate in place, but added that it exempts employers with religious objections. He called on the federal government to show the same respect for the religious convictions of its people.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows that the majority of Americans support an exemption for all employers who have religious or moral objections to the mandate.

Manion fears the administration sees the current debate as a religious-organization problem only.

The new lawsuit illustrates the large scope of those who would be affected by the mandate, he said, explaining that he has had numerous other individuals express similar concerns over the mandate to him.

Manion is confident that the outcome of the case will be positive. He pointed to a recent ruling by a federal judge that Washington pharmacists could not be forced to dispense the “morning-after pill” against their religious objections.

The case was decided in favor of a for-profit, secular pharmacist with similar arguments, he said, adding that he thinks the courts will continue to acknowledge the strength of such arguments. 

“We’re a pluralistic society,” Manion explained. “There are ways to accomplish things without trampling on people’s religious rights.

“It’s just not the American way, and it never has been.”