Eastern District of Pennsylvania judge rules against firm that challenged health care law
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While the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens United extended First Amendment protections to corporations' freedom of speech, it doesn't extend the right to freely practice religion to private companies, a federal judge ruled in a Lancaster County furniture company's challenge to the Affordable Care Act, often called "Obamacare."
U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a Mennonite family in East Earl, Pa., that runs a cabinetry company, holding that the right to freely practice religion is a wholly personal one that can't be conferred to a privately held company, regardless of the religious practices of its owners.
Referring to the First Amendment's rights to free speech and religion, Judge Goldberg said in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, "Although they reside within the same constitutional amendment, these two provisions have vastly different purposes and precedents, and we decline to make the significant leap plaintiffs ask of us without clear guidance from Congress or the Supreme Court."
The Hahn family, which owns Conestoga Wood Specialties, plans to appeal the decision, their lawyer, Charles Proctor III, said.
The Hahns argued that because of their deep religious belief that it is a sin to abort a fertilized egg, the women's preventive health care regulations included in the Affordable Care Act, which require companies to provide employees with insurance coverage that includes women's contraception, violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
Judge Goldberg wasn't convinced by the argument that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is analogous to this case.
"Citizens United built upon the long-accepted principle that corporations have free speech rights protected by the Constitution," Judge Goldberg said. "However, we find no such historical support for the proposition that a secular, for-profit corporation possesses the right to free exercise of religion."
The "nature, history and purpose" of the freedom to practice religion clause is purely personal, Judge Goldberg said.
He also was not convinced by the Hahns' argument that they act as the alter-ego for the company, thereby conferring their right to the free practice of religion to their business.
Judge Goldberg noted the very purpose of incorporation is to create a legal entity distinct from those who start it, partly to protect the founders from personal legal and financial liability.
"It would be entirely inconsistent to allow the Hahns to enjoy the benefits of incorporation, while simultaneously piercing the corporate veil for the limited purpose of challenging these regulations," Judge Goldberg said. He also found the Hahns hadn't proved that they would be substantially burdened by the law.
"If every plaintiff were permitted to unilaterally determine that a law burdened their religious beliefs, and courts were required to assume that such burden was substantial, simply because the plaintiff claimed that it was the case, then the standard expressed by Congress under the RFRA would convert to an 'any burden' standard," he said.
Brigitte Amiri of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, which filed an amicus brief advocating against the injunction, said, "This decision reaffirms the idea that taking a job isn't the same as joining a church."
First Published January 21, 2013 12:00 am