A federal judge in Missouri has ruled that the Catholic owner of a mining and ceramics business cannot invoke his religious views to avoid paying for an employee’s birth control coverage as part of her health insurance. The case is one of 30 initiated around the country in such matters.
Plaintiffs were Frank O’Brien and O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC, an 87-worker St. Louis-based company engaged mining, processing and distributing refractory and ceramic raw materials and products. They claimed that the provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring birth control to be included in company-supplied employees’ health care insurance would violate their religious beliefs and that the alternative of paying fines for not providing insurance coverage “would have a crippling impact on their ability to survive economically.”
What would mining and ceramics processing, production and distribution have to do with religion? Perhaps nothing?
The plaintiffs argued much of their case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which bars the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” with a rule or law unless there is a paramount government interest. The U.S Health and Human Services defendants argued, among other things, that a corporation is not a person and therefore cannot “exercise” a religion under RFRA.
District Court Judge Carol Jackson, a George H.W. Bush-appointee who has served on the court for 20 years, chose to reject plaintiffs’ claims on “subtantial burden” and thus did not rule on whether a corporation is a person under RFRA. That leaves open the probability that we’ll see that objection being raised in other cases being heard on this matter. What Jackson did say was this:
The burden of which plaintiffs complain is that funds, which plaintiffs
will contribute to a group health plan, might, after a series of independent decisions
by health care providers and patients covered by OIH’s plan, subsidize someone else’s
participation in an activity that is condemned by plaintiffs’ religion. This Court rejects
the proposition that requiring indirect financial support of a practice, from which
plaintiff himself abstains according to his religious principles, constitutes a substantial
burden on plaintiff’s religious exercise.
RFRA is a shield, not a sword. It protects individuals from substantial burdens
on religious exercise that occur when the government coerces action one’s religion
forbids, or forbids action one’s religion requires; it is not a means to force one’s
religious practices upon others. RFRA does not protect against the slight burden on
religious exercise that arises when one’s money circuitously flows to support the
conduct of other free-exercise-wielding individuals who hold religious beliefs that differ
from one’s own.
In other words, as Ian Millhiser points out, the “plaintiffs can hardly claim they refuse to provide a benefit to their employees that those employees could later use to purchase birth control, because they are already providing those employees with a benefit they can use to purchase birth control—money.”
Until the appeal, assuming one occurs, chalk up one defeat for the Right in its war on women.