Preliminary injunction denied in business’ challenge to contraceptive coverage mandate

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Korte v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, (SD IL, Dec. 14, 2012), an Illinois federal district court denied a preliminary injunction sought by a for-profit construction business and its controlling shareholders in a free exercise challenge to the contraceptive coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act.  The court held that the exercise of religion is a purely personal right; corporations cannot exercise religion even though they may advance a belief system.  However, the court held that because the religious and financial interests of the the individual controlling shareholders and the family-owned S corporation involved in the case are virtually indistinguishable, the shareholders satisfy the third-party standing test and can present the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA claims. Moving to the merits, the court rejected plaintiffs’ 1st Amendment claim, finding it likely that the mandate is a neutral law of general applicability that only incidentally burdens free exercise.  Moving to plaintiffs’ claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the court concluded that the mandate does not create a “substantial burden” on plaintiffs’ free exercise rights:

While neither dispositive nor determinative, the Court again notes the Plaintiffs’current health insurance plan covers the very preventive health services  they seek to enjoin.  There is a palpable inconsistency in claiming the ACA contraception mandate substantially burdens their religious beliefs while they currently maintain the same coverage in their existing pre-ACA health plan…. 

Any inference of support for contraception stemming from complying with the neutral and generally applicable mandate is a de minimus burden. It appears that Plaintiffs’ objection presupposes that an insured will actually use the contraception coverage.  Even assuming that there is a substantial likelihood that a K&L employee will do so, at that point the connection between the government regulation and the burden upon the Kortes’ religious beliefs is too distant to constitute a substantial burden.