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Government, Politics & Issues

Third Missouri firm obtains judicial order to bar temporarily contraceptive coverage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2013 - A third Missouri firm has obtained a federal judge’s restraining order barring enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring that non-church employers provide contraceptive coverage to insured workers.

The three temporary orders, all granted since late November, contrast with the rejections of similar claims in several lawsuits filed in other states, including one sought by the Hobby Lobby retail chain.

All three Missouri actions also are beginning to attract national notice.

The latest order was issued on New Year's eve by St. Louis-based federal Judge David D. Noce at the behest of Sharpe Holdings Inc. of Bethel, Mo.

Noce's order barring enforcement of the contested ACA provisions is temporary, remaining in effect until a hearing is held Jan. 14.

Sharpe Holdings explains in its suit that it objects to certain types of contraception – notably copper IUDs and so-called “morning-after’’ pills such as Plan B and Ella – which the corporation contends “constitute abortion on demand’’ and violate the beliefs of founder Charles N. Sharpe and at least two employees.

(Backers of the contraceptive provisions dispute such contentions, citing medical experts’ assertions that the contested types of contraception do not end an established pregnancy.)

Sharpe Holdings describes itself as a corporation “that employs more than 50 full-time individuals in industries including farming, dairy, creamery and cheese-making.”

The various operations are part of Heartland Ministries, a religious community in northeast Missouri founded by Charles N. Sharpe, who also is the chief executive of Sharpe Holdings. The firm provides insurance to its employees through a self-insurance program.

Suit targets only IUD, 'morning-after' pills

Sharpe and two employees – Judi Diane Schaefer and Rita Joanne Wilson – filed suit on Dec. 20, contending that the copper IUDs and the "morning-after" pills can prevent implantation of a fertilized human egg and therefore amount to an early abortion.

According to court documents, Sharpe and the other plaintiffs are singling out only the IUD and morning-after pills and are not challenging other contraceptives.

Sharpe’s lawyer, Tim Belz, said in an interview that his client is “a very religious guy” but “not Catholic, so he doesn’t object to the contraceptive mandate as such." Belz emphasized that the suit only cites objections to the copper IUD and the two types of pills taken after sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.

Sharpe "shouldn’t be forced to provide them via the self-insurance plan,’’ Belz said. “It’s not his intent to keep employees from using these pills or devices” but doesn’t want to play a role by providing insurance coverage.

“It’s a matter of conscience,’’ Belz added, stating that Sharpe Holdings does provide coverage for other types of contraception.

Other two suits cite similar religious objections

This week's judicial order follows another little-noticed injunction, also obtained in December, by a St. Louis recycling business – American Pulverizer Co. The firm raised similar objections in its successful request to U.S. District Judge Richard Dorr, who also has temporarily barred enforcement of the ACA’s contraceptive-coverage mandate.

American Pulverizer is owned by Paul and Henry Griesedieck, religious conservatives who oppose abortion and share Sharpe’s contention that some contraceptives can cause early abortions.

In his order, Dorr took note that federal lawyers argue that firms such as American Pulverizer are not owned by religious institutions and are therefore not exempted from the ACA mandate regarding contraception coverage.

The judge replied, “Does an individual’s choice to run his business (as a private enterprise) strip that individual of his right to exercise his religious beliefs?”

Both rulings appear to mesh with the Nov. 29 decision by the federal Eighth District Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, in which the court resurrected a suit filed by  St. Louis businessman Frank R. O’Brien. A Catholic, he contended that providing any contraceptive coverage to his 87 employees violated his religious beliefs.

A lower court had tossed out O'Brien's suit, a key reason the appeals court's action took some on both sides by surprise.

Sharpe’s lawyer, Belz, said the three suits aren’t related and that it appeared to be coincidence that three Missouri cases have, so far, gotten favorable judicial rulings to continue the fight against the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.

But all three are beginning to attract national attention, particularly from conservative groups who see their early court success as possible routes to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit at least part of its earlier 5-4 decision that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional.

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