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January 8, 2013

NEAL: Government rules trump company’s religious beliefs

When the officers of Grote Industries sat down to discuss a possible legal challenge to the contraceptive mandate in the national health care law, the vote was immediate and unanimous. “We decided that it was definitely against our beliefs,” says chairman and CEO William Grote III.

The company filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in southern Indiana seeking to block implementation of that provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Based in Madison, Grote Industries is a global leader in the manufacture of vehicle lighting and safety systems. As Roman-Catholic Christians, its owners strive to operate the business in accord with Catholic social and moral teachings. Among them is the belief that human life is sacred from conception and that using artificial birth control is wrong.

For that reason, the self-insured health plan offered by Grote Industries to its employees has never before covered abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives or sterilization.

As of Jan. 1, the company had no choice in the matter. It either covers such services or faces steep daily fines imposed by the federal government. “The penalty is absolutely onerous,” Grote says. “It would easily destroy the company should we not do it.”

The Affordable Care Act has generated many lawsuits since its passage but few of its provisions have been as controversial as the one forcing employers to subsidize medical services to which they object on moral grounds.

The law guarantees most workers co-pay free access to preventive heath care. Federal rules say this includes “contraceptive methods and sterilization methods” approved by the Food and Drug Administration such as Plan B and “ella,” known as the “morning after” and “week after” pills because they can prevent fertilized eggs from attaching to the uterus. Related counseling and education are also covered.

Employers who fail to finance these things can be fined $100 per employee per day. With 1,150 employees worldwide, Grote Industries could be looking at $4 million a year.

The Grote complaint is one of more than 40 lawsuits filed around the country by Catholic and evangelical plaintiffs including hospitals, universities and for-profit businesses.

Religious non-profits are exempt from the mandate until Aug. 1 while the Obama administration considers changes to address their objections. For-profit businesses like Grote were required to comply by August 2012 or whenever their updated health plans took effect, in most cases Jan. 1.

The underlying issue – whether the mandate violates religious freedom and free speech concerns of private employers – has yet to be addressed by the Supreme Court. Efforts to block the law’s enforcement pending resolution of the legal challenges have been mostly unsuccessful.

On Dec. 26, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor refused to stop the Department of Health and Human Services from enforcing the mandate against Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain with 13,000 employees. The next day, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker denied a similar motion from Grote Industries, finding that “the burden the mandate imposes on plaintiffs here is likely too remote and attenuated to be considered substantial.” Hobby Lobby has announced it will defy the law while Grote intends to comply.

The contraceptive mandate was recently dubbed by Heritage Foundation the “worst regulation” issued by the feds in 2012 due to its lack of exemptions for health plan providers with religious objections.

It is an example, one Heritage scholar said, “of the coercive ‘incentives’ built into Obamacare, which has concentrated broad powers in the hands of the federal government — a drastic and dangerous experiment.”

 “This gross government overreach even extends to commandeering religious employers into directly paying for drugs and services that violate their faith despite conscientious objections. In the Administration’s view, business owners must abandon their religious and moral convictions as a condition of participating in commerce.”

Grote Industries has been in operation for over 100 years, and Bill Grote says he can’t think of a comparable example of government meddling.

“This is up close and personal,” he says. “These are our beliefs.”

— Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

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