MN Catholic businessmen file complaint against HHS mandate

| Susan Klemond for The Catholic Spirit | November 20, 2012 | 0 Comments

Two local Catholic businessmen are seeking relief in court from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate as they wrestle with difficult choices about whether to violate their consciences by providing and paying for employee contraceptive coverage as the mandate requires — or eliminating altogether the health coverage they feel morally obligated to offer.

Stuart Lind, owner of a Minnetonka-based medical device company, and Tom Janas, who has owned several dairy-related businesses, became the first in Minnesota this month to challenge the mandate in a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services. The men say the mandate not only violates their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion but also would create a competitive disadvantage if they don’t offer health insurance.

The HHS mandate requires most employers, including religious employers, to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.

A narrow exemption applies only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith. The mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.

Represented by Erick Kaardal of the Minneapolis-based law firm of Mohrman & Kaardal, P.A., and attorneys from Indiana-based ActRight Legal Foundation, Lind’s and Janas’s case will go to U.S. District Court sometime next year.

The mandate sets a dangerous precedent in asserting that religious objections don’t need to be accommodated, Kaardal said.

It “puts the Catholic business owner in a tough spot,” he said. “Do they want to cooperate with this or do they have to go without health insurance? That puts them in a non-competitive position. It has a huge chilling effect on the exercise of religious faith in the workplace because a business owner should be able to integrate their faith and their work and the HHS mandate requires otherwise.”

While non-profit religious institutions such as schools and hospitals — including those involved in 30 lawsuits against HHS — were given an additional year to comply with the mandate, for-profit business people, including Lind and Janas and others who have filed nine other lawsuits nationwide, must be in compliance at the start of their health plan’s next yearly cycle, which for many is in January.

Preliminary injunctions were recently granted in two for-profit cases and decisions or a hearing are expected in the coming weeks in a few others, including one filed by the Oklahoma craft store chain Hobby Lobby.

Lind employs fewer than 50 workers at his company, Annex Medical, which manufactures devices for use with endoscopes. Because of the size of his business he is not required to provide health coverage under the mandate. He chooses to offer it but hasn’t been able to find a health plan without the contraceptive coverage, and he plans to discontinue coverage when his plan terminates on Jan. 31 unless he receives relief in court, Kaardal said.

Janas sold his company, Roffe Container, to a competitor earlier this year after learning he would have to comply with the mandate if he continued to offer his employees health insurance. He would like to buy another dairy business but doesn’t have a choice of a health insurance plan that excludes coverage for contraception and abortifacients. Janas has decided not to make the purchase pending the court decision. Like Lind, he believes complying with the mandate is immoral.

“I don’t think anyone could seriously question their religious objections here,” Kaardal said. “We’re relying on Church teaching and the advice of pastors and counselors. It’s a very practical question. With the HHS mandate, you’re the sole owner of a business and you’re looking at purchasing insurance for your employees. What do you do? I see a great sincerity in their view that the HHS mandate has interfered with their lives and caused a lot of consternation.”

Not only Catholics

Catholics are not the only ones opposing the mandate, according to Emily Hardman, communications director and attorney for the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute protecting religious freedom, which has represented a number of organizations opposing the HHS mandate. Many Protestants and a number of rabbis, along with more than 500 scholars, religious leaders and health care professionals from many backgrounds openly oppose the mandate, she said.

An accommodation for religious and conscience objection on the HHS mandate doesn’t seem forthcoming, so there is little choice for companies and religious institutions other than to go to court, Hardman said.

Added Kaardal: “The HHS mandate could use a little more thinking and polishing to ensure that religious people like my clients weren’t put in this position.”

Father John Echert, pastor of Holy Trinity-St. Augustine in South St. Paul, where Lind is a parishioner, has foreseen practical consequences of mandate compliance.

“I think many Catholics are not aware that this is already impacting many employers and businesses,” he said. “They should be aware not only because of the moral and constitutional issues or principles that are at stake, but this mandate is likely to have other consequences to include loss of health insurance coverage for many employees or even loss of employment.”

Even if Americans aren’t religious or don’t especially oppose contraception coverage, Hardman points to a larger issue with the mandate: the fact that to comply with it Lind, Janas and many others would have to violate their consciences.

She said, “It’s kind of a wake-up call that says, ‘Hey, listen, everybody is going to be impacted by this mandate and you know what? Even if you don’t have problems with the morning after pill, the week after pill, sterilization, contraception, you should be gravely concerned that the government can force anybody to violate their conscience because if the government can force people to violate their conscience, what can’t the government do?’”

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