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Ruling Brings 'Several New Twists' to Legal Fight over Contraceptive Mandate

Court rules that 'extensive exemptions' prevent the mandate from being considered 'generally applicable.'

Update (April 19): A federal district court has decided in favor of Seneca Hardwood Lumber Company, ruling that the family business is "likely to succeed on the merits" of its challenge to the contraceptive mandate. The court said current exemptions are "‘woefully underinclusive' and therefore does not serve a compelling government interest."


In a ruling noted by Religion Clause for bringing "several new twists" to the ongoing legal fight over the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraceptive mandate, a Pennsylvania federal district court has ruled that a for-profit business owner may proceed with his lawsuit even as the court dismissed the case of Geneva College and another for-profit business owner in the same ruling.

In essence, the court issued three separate rulings for the college, Seneca Hardwood Lumber Company, and WLH Enterprises, which had all filed jointly against the Department of Health and Human Services, objecting to the mandate that employer-provided health insurance plans cover contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives believed by religious conservatives to induce abortions.

The court acknowledged Geneva College's standing to challenge the mandate but ultimately dismissed the claim because the school actually may be exempt. The Alliance Defense Fund intends to appeal the decision.

Only Seneca Hardwood will be allowed to proceed with its claim as-is. The court held that Seneca itself "has standing to assert its Catholic owners' free exercise rights under the 1st Amendment and RFRA"–a ruling from which other courts have shied away.

And while that may be good news for Seneca Hardwood, WLH appeared to receive an opposite ruling. The court stated that WLH's status as a sole proprietorship means "there is no legal separation between it and its owner ...WLH's claims are actually [its owner's] claims, [and] as a sole proprietorship does not have standing to bring suit in its own right."

In other words, WLH's owner, Wayne L. Hepler, who is also named as a plaintiff in the suit, can proceed with the claim as long as he asserts the business' rights in his own name–rather than the other way around.

CT has regularly covered the legal battles against the mandate, often launched by unusual plaintiffs.

In February, CT reported that the Obama administration announced changes to the mandate to redefine which religious organizations, including colleges, qualified for exemptions. CT also examined how religious freedom has become the new battleground for personhood debates.

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