OKLAHOMA CITY - Hobby Lobby Inc. was given a temporary exemption today from a requirement in the new federal health care law to offer insurance coverage for the morning-after pill and similar emergency birth control methods or face steep fines.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton issued the preliminary injunction for the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain and stayed the case until Oct. 1 to give the federal government time to consider filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling was welcomed by the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby and its sister company, the Mardel Christian bookstore chain. Attorneys for the Green family have argued that their religious beliefs are so deeply rooted that having to provide every form of birth control would violate their conscience.
"We're just very excited. This is a great step for us," Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said.
Members of the Green family say they believe life begins at conception, and oppose birth control methods that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, such as an intrauterine device or forms of emergency contraception.
The company offers 16 other forms of birth control mentioned in the federal health care law in its health insurance plans.
"To offer prescriptions that take life is not an option for us," said Green, who attended today's hearing with other family members and supporters.
Heaton, who rejected the companies' request to block the mandate in November, issued the injunction less than a month after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the companies were likely to prevail in the case. Heaton ruled last month that the company would not be subject to fines of up to $1.3 million a day for not offering the birth control methods.
There are currently 63 separate lawsuits challenging the health care law's mandate, 34 of them involving for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby.
Kyle Duncan, Hobby Lobby's lead attorney, argued that requiring the company to comply with the mandate would be a burden to religious exercise. The U.S. Department of Human Services has granted exemptions from portions of the health care law for plans that cover tens of millions of people and an injunction for Hobby Lobby would be in the public interest and would not burden the government, he said.
The government's lawyer, Michelle Bennett, urged Heaton to consider the potential harm an injunction might create for Hobby Lobby's 13,000 employees and members of their families who would be denied coverage for the emergency contraceptives.
In handing down his ruling, Heaton said he was surprised that the Denver-based 10th Circuit's decision in the case seemed to extend a person's constitutional religious exercise rights to businesses. He said it was in the public interest to issue an injunction to give courts time to resolve "substantial unanswered questions."
"The questions that are being presented here are new," the judge said.