A member of the Missouri Legislature and his wife who took a bold pro-life stand of conscience have been vindicated by a federal court. State Senator Paul Wieland of Imperial has won a major victory in U.S. District Court in St. Louis in his challenge to the Obama Administration’s contraceptive and abortion drug mandate.
U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton has ruled that Senator Wieland cannot be forced to purchase health insurance for his family that includes coverage of abortifacient drugs. Judge Hamilton declared that the mandate as applied to the Wieland family was a violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
At issue in the case was a provision in the so-called Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare. That section delegated to the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to determine what “essential benefits” must be included in all health insurance policies sold and issued in the United States.
Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a decree that all health insurance plans must include coverage of all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration, without co-pays or deductibles. The FDA’s list of approved contraceptives include abortifacient drugs such as Ella and Plan B, which have the capability to destroy a developing embryo. Such drugs are often marketed as “emergency contraception” or “morning-after pills.”
Senator Wieland and his wife Teresa are life-long devout Catholics, and as a result, they oppose the use of contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization, or any action which would require them to finance their use. Because of the mandate, they had the choice to participate in a health insurance plan and underwrite drugs and devices they find morally objectionable, or forego health insurance for their family and face punitive fines under the Affordable Care Act.
Judge Hamilton ruled that Senator Wieland should not have to make that choice, because it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under RFRA, the federal government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” The law states that a
“substantial burden” exists when government “conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief.”
“The only way plaintiffs can comply with their religious conscience is by dropping their insurance altogether, which would result in them foregoing a valuable job benefit; in the assessment of thousands of dollars per year in fines pursuant to the individual mandate; and in leaving their daughters without health insurance,” Judge Hamilton wrote.
Federal case law allows an exception to the “substantial burden” test when there is a “compelling governmental interest,” and when the law in question is “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest. However, Judge Hamilton said that the government could allow a system where individuals could simply check a box to opt out of contraceptive coverage, which was the law in Missouri before the federal mandate nullified it.
Senator Wieland is grateful that his conscience rights were affirmed by the district court ruling. “It’s a win for people of religious faith. The judge sided with our argument that the federal government shouldn’t force us as Catholic parents to provide contraceptive and abortion coverage for our daughters.”
It is unclear what the scope and long-term impact of Judge Hamilton’s ruling will prove to be. She confined her ruling to the Wielands’ individual case, and said that it should not be construed to affect health insurance plans offered or provided to individuals other than the plaintiffs and their defendants.
Tim Belz, who served as one of the attorneys for Senator Wieland and his wife, says that the case should invite other individual challenges to the mandate. “If I were in the same shoes as the Wielands, I would take this case to the insurance company and say, ‘Look what the court did for the Wielands. If you make me go to court, the court will do the same thing for me.'”
In the wake of the Obama Administration’s abortion drug mandate, numerous family-owned Christian businesses such as Hobby Lobby have challenged the mandate in federal court with mixed results. These Christian employers have argued that they should not be compelled to provide and pay for insurance coverage for their employees that violates their corporate conscience.
However, the case involving Senator Wieland appears to be the first case in the nation where a federal judge has ruled on an individual’s claim that they should not be compelled to be a consumer of an insurance plan that includes life-destroying drugs and devices.
Tom Brejcha, chief counsel for the Thomas More Society, is hopeful the judge’s decision will have a sweeping impact. “In the Hobby Lobby decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that privately owned businesses whose owners assert conscientious objections…may not be coerced to comply with the Obamacare mandate. For the first time that we’re aware of, this decision now vests that same right of religious liberty in individuals and families across America.”
Judge Hamilton had originally dismissed the Wielands’ lawsuit, ruling that they did not have standing to sue. However, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision, and remanded the case back to Judge Hamilton for a trial on the merits. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama Administration chooses to appeal Hamilton latest decision, since the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has a recent history of respect for conscience rights.