A family-owned business with religious objections to the conscience-crushing Obamacare mandate got a temporary reprieve last week.
A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an order for a preliminary injunction in O’Brien v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The order temporarily blocks the federal government from enforcing the HHS mandate—which forces nearly all employers to cover abortion drugs and contraception in their health plans regardless of religious objections—on O’Brien Industrial Holdings and its owner, Frank R. O’Brien, while they appeal a district court decision dismissing their case.
O’Brien, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), is the first private business owner to have challenged the HHS mandate in court. The panel’s decision marks the first time a federal appeals court has weighed in on a case involving the HHS mandate.
O’Brien’s Catholic religious principles guide the operation of his business, a Missouri holding company that operates several exploration and mining entities. The company’s mission statement and website clearly reflect its owner’s religious values and belief system—and the HHS mandate runs directly afoul of those beliefs by coercing employee health coverage that violates the owner’s conscience.
Because it is a for-profit business, O’Brien Industrial Holdings is not exempt from the requirements of the HHS mandate, and O’Brien faces substantial fines for noncompliance or dropping insurance coverage for his 87 employees.
A lower court had held that forcing a business owner to pay for services that are directly contrary to his religious beliefs does not constitute a “substantial burden” on that individual’s religious liberty in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Until the district court’s decision, no one had seriously contended that the HHS mandate does not substantially burden religious believers. Even the government has acknowledged that the HHS mandate imposes such a burden, which is why it contains a “religious employer exemption,” albeit a narrow one.
Though the appellate panel’s order does not reach the merits of the lower court’s decision, it is a signal of the strength of O’Brien’s religious liberty arguments. In a statement, ACLJ attorney Francis Manion notes the significance of the decision:
The order sends a message that the religious beliefs of employers must be respected by the government. We have argued from the beginning that employers like Frank O’Brien must be able to operate their business in a manner consistent with their moral values, not the values of the government. We look forward to this case moving forward and securing the constitutional rights of our client.
The appellate panel’s decision is an important interim victory for those who value the free exercise of religion and the protection of conscience.