The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 4, 2013

Conestoga Wood Specialties challenges federal health care law

By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item

— BEAVERTOWN — A Lancaster County-based company with two Snyder County factories has been granted a temporary injunction in its case against the federal government’s birth control mandate, according to court documents.

Conestoga Wood Specialties, which has operations in Beavertown and Beaver Springs, alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 4 that the mandate, which requires most employers to offer health insurance that covers birth control, would “be sinful and immoral” to participate in, the lawsuit said.

A hearing and oral arguments will be made in the case this morning in Philadelphia.

“(Conestoga) provides health insurance benefits to their employees that omits coverage of abortifacient drugs,” the lawsuit reads. “The plan renews each year on Jan. 1 ... creating the very real potential for harm to the plaintiffs and their sincerely held religious beliefs if forced to include such coverage.”

The injunction, filed Dec. 28, grants Conestoga a 14-day reprieve from being forced to either include coverage of birth control in its health care plan or pay fines of $95,000 per day — $100 for each of the company’s 950 employees.

U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller wrote in his injunction order that the case presents a variety of issues that need to be addressed in the coming hearings.

Representatives for Conestoga referred all questions to the company’s lawyers, who did not want to comment prior to this morning’s hearing.

Schiller also acknowledged that another complication in the case is that other lawsuits have produced mixed results on the issue, with both wins and losses for opponents of the birth control mandate, which has led to 43 lawsuits across the nation.

“Courts from outside the circuit who have considered the issues raised here have reached different results,” Schiller wrote.

Several companies, such as Conestoga, have been granted temporary injunctions, including Weingartz Supply Co., a Catholic-owned, Michigan-based company that sells outdoor power equipment, and Missouri-based Sharpe Holdings, a dairy farming and cheese-making business. Both rulings also cited the need for further fact-finding of the issues before making a permanent decision.

Other petitions for injunctions have been denied, including one by Oklahoma-based craft chain Hobby Lobby.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton said that the mandate did not constitute a “substantial burden on religious exercise,” despite Hobby Lobby’s claims in its September lawsuit that providing health care coverage of Plan B birth control and certain IUDs would do “irreparable harm to their religious freedom, to their businesses and to their employees’ well-being.”

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has thrown its hat into the ring, filing a friend of the court argument Wednesday opposing Conestoga’s motion for an injunction, saying the birth control mandate helps promote equality in the workplace.

“The impact of the inability to access contraception falls primarily on women,” the brief states. “Access to contraception gives women control of their fertility, enabling them to decide whether and when to become a parent, and allowing women to make educational and employment choices that benefit them and their families.

“Women’s ability to pursue professional careers because of the ability to control whether and when to have children serves to close the wage gap between men and women.”

Conestoga’s refusal to provide employees with birth control coverage is a form of discrimination, the brief states.

“(Conestoga’s) argument is based on the incorrect notion that religion can be used as a license to discriminate,” the brief states.