A second federal court has enjoined the application of the ACA’s (“Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”) rule that would have required a Catholic employer to provide employee health insurance that covers contraception.

This week a judge in Michigan temporarily enjoined the government from enforcing this rule against Weingartz Supply Company, which is a self-described “secular, for-profit, family owned and operated corporation that sells outdoor power equipment and employs over 170 employees.” The company owner, Daniel Weingartz, is a practicing Catholic, and contended that it is contrary to Catholic doctrine to use, pay for, or support the use of contraception, and that having his company provide or participate in health insurance that includes providing contraceptives (or else incur a penalty) violates his sincerely-held religious beliefs and substantially burdens his free exercise of religion.

Weingartz Supply Company sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (known as “RFRA”), which provides that “Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”   However, the Court also analyzed the request for a preliminary injunction under the First Amendment.

Standing of Weingartz To Raise the Religious Freedom of His Corporation

Initially, the Court had to deal with this issue of standing – whether a corporation can assert a right to religious freedom.  The Court noted that the RFRA protects only individuals, not corporations, but held that that “a corporation has standing to assert the free exercise rights of its owners” when that corporation is closely held and “‘merely the instrument through and by which [the plaintiffs] exercise their religious beliefs.’”  So “[f]or the purposes of the pending motion, however, Weingartz Supply Co. may exercise standing in order to assert the free exercise rights of its president, Daniel Weingartz, being identified as ‘his company.’”  

Likelihood of Success on the Merits and Compelling State Interest

As to the elements of “likelihood of success on the merits” and whether the government “has a compelling state interest” in enforcing the rule, the Court held that Weingartz Supply Co is “likely to show at trial that the [rule] substantially burdens the observance of the tenets of Catholicism,” although “[n]either [it] nor the Government have shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits.”  

Additionally, the Court stated that it “has no doubt that every level of Government has an interest in promoting public health as a general matter, but it remains uncertain that the Government will be able to prove a compelling interest in promoting the specific interests at issue in this litigation.”

Irreparable Harm and The Balance of the Equities

Finally, and apparently most persuasively to the Court, it held that “[v]iolation of a First Amendment right in itself constitutes irreparable harm,” and that “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury. The potential for harm to Plaintiffs exists, and with the showing Plaintiffs have made thus far of being able to convincingly prove their case at trial, it is properly characterized as irreparable.”

Ultimate Holding

The Court concluded that “The harm in delaying the implementation of a statute that may later be deemed constitutional must yield to the risk presented here of substantially infringing the sincere exercise of religious beliefs. The balance of harms tips strongly in Plaintiffs’ favor. A preliminary injunction is warranted.”

This writer remains unconvinced that the corporation has standing, as the Court concluded, or that an owner’s religion can be imputed to a corporation, or that ACA violates either RFRA or the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court holds the key to these issues.