Judge rejects Pennsylvania firm’s health care law challenge

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PHILADELPHIA – A federal judge has rejected the argument of the Mennonite owners of a central Pennsylvania furniture manufacturing company that new health care requirements that they pay for employees’ contraceptive services violate their free speech and religion rights.


U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg on Friday rejected a preliminary injunction sought by the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., saying Norman Hahn and his family were unlikely to prevail in their case. He said they had not proven that complying with the new health care law amounted to a “substantial burden” on their religious rights.


Attorney Charles W. Proctor III told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the Hahns plan to appeal.


“We think it’s well thought out,” attorney Charles W. Proctor III said of the decision. “We just don’t agree with it.”


Conestoga’s current health plan excludes coverage for contraceptives and drugs used to abort a pregnancy, citing Mennonite Church teaching that terminating a fertilized embryo “is an intrinsic evil and a sin against God.” They said complying with the health care law’s requirement to pay for contraceptive services and especially abortifacients would violate their religion, and disobeying it would subject them to crippling fines.


The judge ruled that the company did not qualify for an exception as a religious employer, since it was a for-profit company making a secular product with no formal ties to a church or other religious group. He said he found no “historical support for the proposition that a secular, for-profit corporation possesses the right to free exercise of religion,” and declined to make what he called “the significant leap” that the plaintiffs were seeking “without clear guidance from Congress or the Supreme Court.”


Goldberg also said it was worth emphasizing “that the ultimate and deeply private choice to use an abortifacient contraceptive rests not with the Hahns, but with Conestoga’s employees.” The judge said that while complying with the regulations might impose some burden upon the Hahns, “any such burden on their ability to freely exercise their religion would be indirect.”


“Importantly, (they) remain free to make their own independent decisions about their use or non-use of different forms of contraception, as that clearly remains a personal matter,” he said.


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