A federal appeals court has deepened a circuit split over religious challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that companies provide contraceptive and related coverage.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Autocam Corp. v. Sebelius on Tuesday dismissed a challenge to the law’s mandate that employers provide insurance that covers contraception, including the morning-after pill, sterilization and reproductive counseling services.
The court affirmed a trial judge’s December 2012 denial of a motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law. It also instructed Western District of Michigan Judge Robert Jonker to dismiss individual claims brought by the Kennedy family, which owns the closely held automotive manufacturer Autocam and related medical manufacturer Autocam Medical.
The court held that it is the companies—not the family, described in the opinion as devoutly Roman Catholic—that must comply with the law. Autocam itself is not a “person” capable of “religious exercise” as intended by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it said.
Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote the ruling for a panel that included Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch and Eastern District of Michigan Judge Denise Page Hood, sitting by designation.
The panel found that Congress never intended that for-profit corporations be treated at persons under the religious freedom act.
“[T]he Court’s recognition of rights for corporations like Autocam under the Free Speech Clause nearly twenty years after [the religious freedom act’s] enactment does not require the conclusion that Autocam is a ‘person’ that can exercise religion for purposes of [that act].”
The opinion noted the circuit split about whether for-profit corporations can be exempted from the law’s mandate to cover reproductive health services.
In June, an en banc Tenth Circuit ruled that two for-profit companies are entitled to bring claims under the religious freedom act and the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. It remanded Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius to the Western District of Oklahoma.
In July, Oklahoma Judge Joe Heaton granted the plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunction against enforcing the law. He also allowed the parties’ joint agreement to stay the case until October 1 to allow them time to decide whether to appeal the appellate ruling.
Also in July, the Third Circuit in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius upheld a trial judge’s denial of a company’s request for an injunction from the enforcement of the law.
The Autocam companies have 1,500 employees worldwide, including 661 in the United States, according to court records.
The plaintiffs were not surprised at the opinion, “given the tenor of the argument,” said Patrick Gillen of the Fidelis Center for Law and Policy, who argued for the company and the family. Fidelis worked with the CatholicVote Legal Defense Fund and the Thomas More Society.
“We think it’s further evidence that the issues are important and need to be decided by the Supreme Court. We intend to seek cert review as soon as possible,” Gillen said.
The Justice Department, which handled the government’s case, declined to comment. Two of the three defendant agencies, the departments of Health and Human Services and Labor, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Treasury Department declined to comment, according to spokeswoman Suzanne Elio.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.