Judge blocks Obama's contraception rule

An injunction issued Friday exempts a Catholic-owned business from offering insurance that covers birth control

Published July 27, 2012 8:45PM (EDT)

The religious right has won its first victory against the Obama administration's requirement that private insurers cover contraception. A federal judge issued an injunction today exempting the Catholic owners of a Colorado company from the requirement -- a move that suggests they'll prevail in their argument that the mandate violates religious freedom.

Until now, other challenges brought against the requirement -- part of the Affordable Care Act's provision that preventative care be covered and without a co-pay -- have either been delayed or dismissed on the grounds that it hasn't yet gone into effect. The most visible plaintiffs have been religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, that don't fall under the narrow religious exemption for the rule. But the company in Colorado -- Hercules Industries, the first to get a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the requirement -- is simply an HVAC equipment manufacture, owned by Catholics who don't want their 265 employees to get birth control coverage under their self-insured group plan.

That made Hercules a double whammy for the right: A small, family-owned business being forced by the federal government to provide contraception and "abortion-inducing drugs." (The latter part is a willful falsehood.) And of course, today, they're already celebrating that Obama's religious suppression has temporarily abated: As Hannah Smith, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has brought some of the universities' lawsuits against HHS, put it, “This decision portends the demise of the current Administration’s attempts to drive religious activity from the public square and confine it within the four walls of a church.”

The ACLU, obviously, was less enthused: "It is unacceptable for employers – especially for-profit companies -- to use their personal beliefs as an excuse to deny critical health coverage to the people who work for them,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “This is not religious freedom; this is discrimination."

The implications beyond Hercules Industries are uncertain. Carter-appointed Judge John L. Kane emphasized that the decision only exempted a single company. The government had argued, plausibly, that granting one exemption for employers to deny their employees coverage would open the door for "all other for-profit, secular corporations voicing religious objections," as Kane put it. "This injunction is, however, premised upon the alleged substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion – not to any alleged burden on any other party’s free exercise of religion. It does not enjoin enforcement of the preventive care coverage mandate against any other party." For now.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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