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Judge backs Catholic firm over contraception mandate

By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - A Catholic-owned family business in Michigan does not have to comply with the provision of the new U.S. healthcare law that requires private employers to provide employees with health insurance that covers birth control, a federal judge in Detroit has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, in a ruling late Wednesday, temporarily blocked the government from forcing the owner of Weingartz Supply Company, which sells outdoor power equipment, to include contraception in its health coverage of employees.

The ruling only affects the company's Catholic proprietor, Daniel Weingartz, and the approximately 170 people who work for him. But it opens the door for other firms to seek relief on religious grounds.

Cleland is now the second federal judge to temporarily block part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 from being enforced against the religious owners of a family business. In July, U.S. District Judge John Kane in Denver temporarily prevented the government from requiring the Catholic owners of Hercules Industries Inc, a private manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, to provide health insurance that covers birth control.

Weingartz was joined in his lawsuit, filed in May, by Legatus, a national association of Catholic business owners.

Roman Catholic bishops and many Republican lawmakers have opposed the birth control provision, and priests have been speaking out against the law from pulpits across the country. Church doctrine opposes artificial contraception but most American Catholics do not adhere to church policy.

Lawyers for the Department of Health and Human Services argued that granting exceptions for small business owners would interfere with the government's ability to implement the law. The contraception mandate serves the government's interests in promoting public health and gender equality, they argued.

The federal government has carved out an exemption from the contraception requirement for religious organizations. Allowing additional relief for Weingartz Supply Co and its 170 employees would not be a much greater burden, the company argued. Cleland agreed with Weingartz.

"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," Cleland wrote in a 29-page opinion.

The judge refused to shield Legatus from the law, finding that the non-profit association would likely qualify for the government's accommodation for religious organizations. If the government later tries to enforce the mandate against Legatus, the group can resume its court challenge then, Cleland wrote.

Erin Mersino, an attorney with the Thomas More Law Center, which filed the challenge, called the ruling "not only a victory for our clients, but for religious freedom."

The Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than 20 lawsuits have been filed against the birth control mandate by organizations including the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University of America and the Archdiocese of New York.

In July, another federal judge in Nebraska dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by seven states, two Catholic individuals and three Catholic non-profit institutions, finding that the plaintiffs did not face any immediate harm from the law.

The case in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan is Legatus et al v. Sebelius et al, No. 12-12061.

(Reporting By Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Claudia Parsons)

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