Jessica Karmasek Jul. 22, 2015, 11:06am


ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Legal Newsline) - A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a lawsuit filed by a Missouri state senator and his wife over the federal health care law’s contraceptive mandate may proceed and be heard on its merits.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision, reversed and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, St. Louis.

The June 2014 ruling by the nation’s high court allowed closely-held, for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest.

Judge Roger Wollman, writing for a three-judge panel made up of himself and judges James Loken and Diana Murphy, expressed no opinion on the merits of the Wielands’ claims.

The suit, filed by Missouri State Sen. Paul Wieland and wife Teresa in November 2013, argued the mandate infringed on their religious liberty rights under the First Amendment because it forced them to violate their religious beliefs by providing health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and birth control to their teenage and adult daughters.

The contraception coverage mandate, which was imposed under Obama’s health care law, requires employers to offer insurance -- including contraception coverage -- or they may be fined.

Family-owned companies and religious-affiliated nonprofits have argued the mandate requires them to provide contraceptives, procedures and drugs that are contrary to their teachings.

The Eighth Circuit ruling, which overruled the Missouri federal court’s dismissal of the case on procedural grounds, held that the Wielands had standing given their claims that the mandate:

- Caused the Wielands to lose their previous health insurance plan that excluded coverage of contraception and abortion-causing pills;

- Caused injury to the family; and

- Violates the Missouri Revised Statutes that state “every employee… has the right to decline or refuse coverage for contraception” if such coverage is “contrary to an employee’s religious beliefs.”

Wollman said the federal court, on remand, must consider whether Missouri Insurance Coalition v. Huff “remains good law” after Hobby Lobby.

Huff was a federal court challenge to a Missouri law that allows employers to offer insurance plans without contraception coverage.

In December 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted a temporary restraining order preventing the law from going into effect.

In March 2013, the court struck down the law for violating the contraceptive coverage rules of the federal health care law and the U.S. Constitution.

The state attorney general never appealed the decision.

“We are satisfied that the Wielands have alleged sufficient facts to show that they were placed in a health-care plan that includes coverage for contraceptives, not because of ‘independent discretionary actions of the State and (Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan),’ but because of HHS’s enforcement or threatened enforcement of the Mandate,” Wollman wrote for the Eighth Circuit. “There was no discretion involved in the decision.

“The State and MCHCP were required by federal law, by the Mandate, to include coverage for contraceptives in all health-care plans they offered -- including the Wielands’ health-care plan.”

The judge continued in the 11-page opinion, “The undeniable effect of the Mandate upon the Wielands is that their health-care plan must now include coverage for contraceptives. We therefore conclude that the Wielands have established a sufficient causal connection between their injury and HHS’s enforcement of the Mandate to satisfy the causation element of standing.”

Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Wielands in the federal court in St. Louis, called the ruling a “huge victory for religious liberty.”

“Last year, for-profit business owners prevailed against the HHS mandate imposed by Obamacare when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. Now, individuals and families may also sue to win protection from the Obamacare mandate, when they have conscientious objections based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” Brejcha said.

“As the case has been remanded to the federal district court where our clients’ religious liberty claims will be evaluated in light of the governing Hobby Lobby precedent, we hope to prevail in the end.”

Tim Belz, special counsel for Thomas More Society in St. Louis and who argued the Wielands’ case before the Eighth Circuit, said he was “grateful” for the court’s ruling.

“We believe that their exercise of religious faith is substantially burdened when the government forces them to provide religiously objectionable insurance coverage for their family,” Belz said of the case.

Two Baptist universities, a Pennsylvania-based seminary, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Diocese of Erie and Diocese of Greensburg are among those currently taking their fight over the mandate to the Supreme Court.

In recent months, the high court has thrown out a number of federal appellate court decisions backing the requirement, remanding the cases for consideration in light of its Hobby Lobby decision.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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