Catholic senator earns victory in federal court against HHS mandate

| Jennifer Brinker | August 3, 2016 | 0 Comments

A Missouri senator won’t be forced to pay for health insurance that includes “religiously objectionable” medical services, according to a judgment issued in federal court.

Judge Jean C. Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted Republican state Sen. Paul Wieland and his family permanent protection from the federal Health and Human Services mandate that individuals, businesses and nonchurch entities must purchase health insurance coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations.

The case represents an unusual angle in which a family has earned a victory against the mandate, preserving their right to religious liberty, said lawyers from the Thomas More Society of Chicago. Special counsel Timothy and Matthew Belz of St. Louis-based Ottsen, Leggat & Belz also represented the family.

The court rejected the U.S. Justice Department’s arguments that the Wielands suffered no substantial adverse burden from having to comply with the mandate.

“The ultimate impact is that the plaintiffs must either maintain a health insurance plan that includes contraceptive coverage, in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, or they can forgo health care altogether, which will result in the imposition of significant penalties (not to mention the potentially crippling costs of uninsured health care),” Hamilton wrote in her opinion July 21.

In 2013, the Wielands sued the federal government for violating their religious liberty, free speech and parental rights because of their objections to the mandated health plan provided by the state of Missouri. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated that the Wielands obtain for themselves, and provide for their dependent daughters, health care coverage that includes coverage for “contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.”

“Religious freedom is one of America’s most valued birthrights. Restrictions on religious beliefs are in violation of the First Amendment and of the very fabric of what it means to be an American,” Paul Wieland said in a statement. “As lifelong Roman Catholics, this is not only a win for our personal beliefs, but it’s a win for religious liberty. The government cannot force us to pay for coverage of abortifacient drugs and contraceptives that go against my religious beliefs.”

The Wielands belong to St. Joseph Parish in Imperial. Paul Wieland was first elected to the Missouri House in 1994 and again in 2010 and 2012. In 2014, he was elected to the Missouri Senate. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus. He and his wife, Teresa, have three daughters, ages 15, 21 and 22.

In 2012, Missouri passed a law that states no person or entity can be discriminated against for refusing to provide or pay for health insurance that includes abortion, contraception or sterilization coverage.

When the federal HHS mandate came out around the same time, it required most insurance plans (with the exception of faith-based organizations or other grandfathered plans) to include coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations. The Wielands, who had a plan that didn’t include contraceptives coverage, were transferred to another plan that included medical services contrary to their Catholic faith.

Most people don’t work for a faith-based organization or an entity that has fought in court to exclude coverage of contraceptives, said Deacon Sam Lee of Campaign Life Missouri.

“Most people have it because their employer provides it whether they want it or not,” he told the St. Louis Review, archdiocesan newspaper. This ruling “will now give any employee the right to opt out and not pay for it, and stop their money that goes into the pool that pays for it for other people.”

It’s unclear whether the government will appeal the decision, said attorney Timothy Belz.

The government has 60 days, and then the decision is made final. If that happens, the Wielands will approach the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan — which provides health insurance coverage to Missouri state employees — and “ask for a policy without this coverage. Missouri law says you’re supposed to give us one. They could not give them the policy until this decision.”

Brinker is a staff writer at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

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