The momentum in the HHS mandate cases seems to be moving against the federal government.  The more time that goes by, the weaker the standing and ripeness objections become, and the more likely that courts will begin to turn their attention to the merits.  The legal argument for the mandate seems to be flagging even in those cases where it seemed (at least to me) that the government’s case was comparatively stronger.

On Thursday, the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri issued a preliminary injunction against the government from enforcing the mandate against a private company, American Pulverizer Co., whose owners are Evangelical Christians who believe that the use of contraception is contrary to their religious beliefs.  Plaintiffs’ companies employ about 150 people, and the current plans cover contraceptive services (perhaps a notable feature of the plans, in my opinion, insofar as the “substantial burden” prong of the RFRA standard is concerned, though the court did not discuss it in reaching its decision).  But plaintiffs wish to change the plans to exclude contraceptive coverage.

As in the O’Brien case referenced by the court (and in which the Eighth Circuit essentially granted the claimant’s motion for preliminary injunction pending appeal), the plaintiffs do not qualify for any exemption or safe harbor from enforcement — they are not religious employers under the terms of the ACA, the don’t qualify for the safe harbor available to non-profits, and they don’t qualify for grandfathered status.  That means the regulation would be enforced against them at the beginning of the new year.

In granting the preliminary injunction against the government, the court essentially punted on the question of whether a corporation can exercise religion, ruling that because the issue demands further “deliberate investigation,” an injunction was warranted.  And it further held that indirect impositions on religious beliefs can constitute substantial burdens.  Finally, the court held that the government could not satisfy its burden to demonstrate that it is advancing a compelling state interest in imposing the mandate, in light of the numerous exceptions contained in the law: “these exemptions undermine any compelling interest in applying the preventative coverage mandate to Plaintiffs.”

The case is American Pulverizer Co. et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 12-3459-CV-S-RED (W.D. Mo. Dec. 20, 2012).

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