Today is the day businesses and insurers must cover a range of women's health services, including birth control and abortifacients, without co-pays or deductibles under the health-reform law.
But that’s got religious objectors in an uproar, including the Roman Catholic church and owners of private businesses. Companies and insurers must offer the coverage free when they renew their insurance policies. If not, they face fines of $100 a day per employee if they don't comply.
The new reform law says businesses must comply even if they are run by people who object on religious grounds.
Already, one company - Hercules Industries in Colorado - has won a preliminary court injunction temporarily exempting it from the law because the Catholic family that runs the company, the Newlands, said it violates their religious beliefs. But that injunction only applies to Hercules.
Companies have grumbled about the added cost, and now several other lawsuits are pending trying to carve out this portion of the Obama health law.
The Administration did let churches and other houses of worship opt out of this requirement, but not affiliated groups, like hospitals and universities, giving them an extra year to comply because of moral objections they raised.
The Administration had nixed a request from the Roman Catholic Church for a broad exemption for insurance provided to employees of Catholic hospitals, colleges and charities. Instead, these groups now have one year, until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply with the requirement. Most other employers and insurers must comply by today.
Last February, the White House offered another accommodation. Religious employers at places like universities, hospitals and charities who object to the new plan would not have to offer or foot the bill for this coverage.
Instead, their insurance companies would have to cover the cost of birth control, “with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception,” the Administration said in a statement.
Over half of Americans already live in 28 states that require insurance companies cover contraception, the White House has noted.
North Carolina, New York, and California have identical religious employer exemptions, it has said. And other states like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all.
The Administration has also cited studies like the one from the Guttmacher Institute, which shows that most women, including 98% of Catholic women, have used contraception.
And it argues that contraception coverage reduces costs. The monthly cost of contraception for women ranges from $30 to $50. “The National Business Group on Health estimated that it would cost employers 15% to 17% more not to provide contraceptive coverage than to provide such coverage,” a White House blog notes.
The requirement “makes sense financially,” a White House official says, offering contraception is cost-neutral and cost-effective, and “companies realize the cost benefits of limiting unintended pregnancies and the health benefits of contraception.”
However, Roman Catholic officials filed federal lawsuits Monday on behalf of hospitals, universities, colleges and schools, arguing the requirement violates religious freedom and First Amendment rights.
Priests for Life and 57 other plaintiffs have sued the federal government, noting in a memo to staff that FOX News has obtained that “we at Priests for Life do not qualify for the year that the government has offered certain groups to ‘adapt’ to the mandate. And we are not ‘religious’ enough for this Administration.”
The group adds it expects the Administration to introduce a motion to dismiss its case against Health and Human Services.
It says in a statement: “Whether or not the government decides to eventually impose fines on us when our health insurance policy is renewed in a few months is not the issue. The issue is that as of today, as far as the government is concerned, we have to provide health insurance coverage for practices that are morally objectionable” and that it “will disobey this mandate.”
On July 17, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Nebraska and six other states that sought to block the contraception coverage rule within the federal health care law. U.S. District Court Judge Warren K. Urbom ruled that the states had no standing in the lawsuit, because they had failed to prove they would suffer immediate harm once the rule is enacted. The judge also said Catholic groups that joined the lawsuit failed to show the religious exemption wouldn't apply to them.
Hercules Industries, a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning business, had argued in U.S. district court the new law violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom. The Newlands did not want to be personally responsible for providing something they have a moral objection to.
Government lawyers countered that a court-ordered exemption for Hercules Industries would trigger a cascade of requests for exemptions from other companies and undermine the public interest and Congress’s intent of improving the health of women across the country.
“It is unacceptable for employers -- especially for-profit companies -- to use their personal beliefs as an excuse to deny critical health coverage to the people who work for them," said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a lawyer for the ACLU in Washington, had said in an e-mailed statement. Another analyst added that the Newlands should hire only Catholics with the same beliefs as them, “if they are so concerned about their employees’ personal lives.” Also, workers can buy their own contraceptives or buy a different health insurance plan that covers birth control.
But in his ruling in favor of Hercules, US District Judge John Kane said: “These interests are countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion,” which is a constitutional right. In his decision, the judge said that for the government to force anyone, including company owners, to violate their religious beliefs, it must have a compelling interest.
But by the very dint of its accommodations and exemptions, the Administration has so weakened its “compelling interest” position, that it had no standing to force the Newlands to comply with the law’s requirements on contraception coverage.
Elizabeth MacDonald joined FOX Business Network (FBN) as stocks editor in September 2007.
Follow Elizabeth MacDonald on Twitter @LizMacDonaldFOX.