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Federal appeals court lets Hobby Lobby proceed in case against ACA provision

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A federal appeals court's ruling concerning a national craft store's religious objection to a provision in the Affordable Care Act could be significant for a similar case filed in West Virginia.

In their June 27 ruling, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judges held that Hobby Lobby, the Christian bookstore chain Mardel and the companies' owners were allowed to bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The suit, brought in September 2012 by the companies and owners, David Green, Barbara Green, Mart Green, Steve Green and Darsee Lett, sought an exception from an Affordable Care Act provision requiring certain contraceptive services as part of the health care plan.

The owners took issue with emergency contraception or what they call "abortifacients," saying it is against their religion.

The owners moved for preliminary injunction on the basis of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act and Free Exercise Claims, the ruling notes, but the federal court denied the motion.

The appeals court remanded the case back to an Oklahoma federal court, asking the court to address whether plaintiffs get the desired preliminary injunction.

Shortly after the ruling, the federal court granted plaintiffs' motion for temporary restraining order pending a hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction. A hearing to determine whether a preliminary injunction is granted will be July 19. 

A similar case is going on in West Virginia, where the owner of a South Charleston car dealership said his religious freedom will be violated if a federal court does not intervene. 

Brought by The Family Policy Council of West Virginia and the Liberty Institute, on behalf of Joseph Holland Jr. and Joe Holland Chevrolet, the suit seeks relief against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Treasury, Seth Harris and Jacob Lew.

The suit, filed in federal court for the southern district of West Virginia, asserts the provision that provides coverage for emergency contraceptives and what he calls "abortion-related counseling" is unconstitutional. 

"This mandate deprives plaintiffs of their fundamental right to practice their sincere and deeply held religious beliefs as protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act," the suit states.

Holland seeks the court to declare the government mandate unconstitutional and enter a temporary restraining order. U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston ordered a June 26 phone conference for the consideration of a temporary restraining order.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandated employers and insurance companies to cover contraceptive and sterilization methods.

The department did, however, propose amendments a few months ago to exempt nonprofit religious organizations — such as Catholic charities — to avoid a direct payment of that contraceptive coverage. Instead, their insurance companies would separately provide free coverage.

Holland Chevrolet provides health insurance to 150 full-time employees and would thus be required to implement a plan with this government mandate. This current plan runs through the end of this month and the new plan year starts July 1, the suit states.

Holland said since he is president of the company and chairman of its board of directors, he would be responsible for implementing a plan with the provision in which he does not support.

In his suit, Holland explains he is a "born-again Christian" and practices his business in accordance with his beliefs, such as closing his business on Sundays.

Like Holland, the owners of Hobby Lobby and Mardel say their stores also are run according to religious beliefs, such as the fact that it is closed on Sundays.

The court ruling also notes that Hobby Lobby and Mardel have more than 13,000 employees under the insurance plan, which would mean a fine of $1.3 million per day or $475 million per year.

The appeals court determined that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the definition of "person" would include corporations, regardless of whether they are for-profit or nonprofit.

"No one disputes in this case the sincerity of Hobby Lobby and Mardel's religious beliefs. And because the contraceptive-coverage requirement places substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Mardel to violate their sincere religious beliefs, their exercise of religion is substantially burdened within the meaning of RFRA," the ruling states.