Another Obamacare Win: Religious Birth Control Exemption Thrown Out by Court

On September 17, 2013, the Affordable Care Act was issued another victory.  A privately owned manufacturing company, Autocam Corporation and Autocam Medical, was told they would have to abide by the provision of the ACA requiring employers with over 50 employees to provide health insurance that includes free birth control coverage.

The Michigan-based, for-profit Autocam is owned by John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic.  They manufacture fuel systems, power-steering systems and medical devices.

They put in a bid with the federal court for a temporary injunction that would exempt them from the ACA birth control provision, on basis of religious freedom.

The Kennedy’s and their businesses challenged the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s mandate requiring companies’ health plans to cover contraceptives and sterilization procedures, claiming the directive forces them to violate the teachings of their religion or face significant fines.  It is their belief that they become morally responsible for others’ use of contraceptives when they “directly pay for the purchase of drugs and services … in violation of [their] beliefs,” according to the lawsuit.

Their request was denied by the federal court, and later upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

They found that Autocam Corporation is not entitled to an exemption from the contraceptive mandate.  They stated that a for-profit company is not a person that can exercise religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The decision of Autocam Corporation v. Sebelius was written by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons.  Judge Gibbons was named to the federal bench by President Reagan in 1983 and was eventually elevated to the appeals court by President Bush in 2003.

Judge Julia Gibbons, who wrote for the three-judge panel, said, “Looking to RFRA’s [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] relevant context, we find strong indications that Congress did not intend to include corporations primarily organized for secular, profit-seeking purposes as ‘persons’ under RFRA. … Congress did not intend to expand the scope of the Free Exercise Clause.”

Although many religious organizations have been granted RFRA protections, “we need not ‘draw the conclusion that, just because courts have recognized the free exercise rights of churches and other religious entities, it necessarily follows that for-profit, secular corporations can exercise religion,'” Gibbons wrote, quoting 3rd Circuit precedent.

The court also dismissed the Kennedy’s individual claim for lack of jurisdiction, saying a shareholder may not bring claims on behalf of the company, even if they are majority owners.

“We are without authority to ignore the choice the Kennedys made to create a separate legal entity to operate their business,” Gibbons explained.  “The decision to comply with the mandate falls on Autocam, not the Kennedy’s.  For this reason, the Kennedy’s cannot bring claims in their individual capacities under RFRA, nor can Autocam assert the Kennedys’ claims on their behalf.”

The panel also ruled against the request to extend the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC to secular, for-profit companies being able to exercise their religion freely.

“The court’s recognition of rights for corporations like Autocam under the free speech clause nearly 20 years after RFRA’s enactment does not require the conclusion that Autocam is a ‘person’ that can exercise religion for purposes of RFRA,” Gibbons wrote.

The split ruling on whether for profit corporations may be exempt under the RFRA, in addition to dozens of other challenges, signals that the issue may end up at the Supreme Court.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is an organization that pushes for separation between the two entities set in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The Executive Director is Reverend Barry W. Lynn.

Mr. Lynn, who filed a friend of the court amicus brief, asked the court to uphold the birth control mandate.  Mr Lynn said that the court made the right call, and that secular corporations are not people with religious liberty rights.

“Religious liberty is for people, not Big Business,” Lynn asserted. “No corporation should ever be able to tell its employees that they can’t have access to contraceptive coverage simply because it offends the boss’ religious views.”

The court stated that the RFRA’s legislative history “makes no mention of for-profit corporations. This is a sufficient indication that Congress did not intend the term ‘person’ to cover entities like Autocam when it enacted RFRA.”

This decision agrees with the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., but conflicts with the 10th Circuit’s decision in Hobby Lobby Stores.

Birth control was never an issue until President Obama came along.  Somewhere between paying a co-pay for birth control and it being free, religious liberty became an issue.  When the churches objected, President Obama was willing to work with them so that they did not have to cover birth control, but it would still be provided for free through the insurance companies.  While churches meet this exemption, for-profit businesses and religiously affiliated places such as hospitals and universities do not.

Nobody is forcing Catholics to take birth control.  If they want to follow their religious beliefs and not take it, they are allowed.  However, the option should and must be there.  The Supreme Court already upheld the Affordable Care Act as law.  If the birth control provision does make it to the Supreme Court, it should be expected the Obama Administration would succeed yet again.


Churches begrudgingly approve of President Obama’s compromise for birth control.

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Salvatore Aversa
Salvatore Aversa attended Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in History in 2009. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife Nicole and their Chocolate Labrador Godiva.