Seneca Hardwood Lumber Company and WLH Enterprises avoid birth control provision

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Call it a moral victory.

Geneva College has, more in spirit than in law, won the first round of its legal battle against the provision stemming from the federal health care overhaul that requires most employers to help pay for contraceptives and "morning after" pills through health insurance coverage.

But the Beaver Falls evangelical university is no longer a plaintiff in Geneva College v. Sebelius, even though the case still bears its name.

In a ruling issued last week in the Western District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti found in favor of the remaining plaintiffs, granting a preliminary injunction that allows two lumber companies to avoid the new federal health insurance rule that says employer health plans must cover contraceptives, morning-after drugs and reproductive education and counseling for women.

The remaining plaintiffs on the case are Wayne L. Hepler and Carrie E. Kolesar and their companies, Seneca Hardwood Lumber Company Inc. of Cranberry and WLH Enterprises, a small sawmill with six employees. Mr. Hepler owns both WLH Enterprises and Seneca, and most of the sawmill's employees have health coverage through Seneca Hardwood, which has 22 employees.

Seneca and its owners, who are Catholic, joined the Geneva lawsuit in June 2012. They argued that the contraceptive provision of the Affordable Care Act violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Theirs is one of about 50 such suits filed in various federal courts across the country.

President Barack Obama and his Department of Health and Human Services required most employer health plans to be in compliance with the HHS mandates last year, but many faith-based groups, including universities and hospitals, have "safe harbor" until at least Aug. 1. That safe harbor generally does not apply to for-profit companies.

Geneva, meanwhile, was dismissed as a plaintiff last month by Judge Flowers Conti, because the school already qualifies for safe harbor.

Geneva filed the federal lawsuit in February 2012, challenging the "morning after" pill provision, but not conventional birth control (it already provides contraceptive coverage to its employees).

"Our suit is not directed against preventative contraception," Kenneth Smith, president of Geneva, said at the time. "It's about the government requiring us and other religious organizations to provide services against which we have a religious and morally based conviction."

As for Mr. Hepler, according to the complaint, he is Catholic, anti-abortion, has 13 children, runs a Catholic retreat house and was once a board member for the Couple to Couple League, a natural family planning group.

"This is a small family business. Many of the employees are part of the family," said Matt Bowman, attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based firm representing Seneca. "Yet the government is forcing them to violate their religious beliefs [as] a price of doing business in America."

He said this case, or others like it, will eventually make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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