Court Finds For-Profit Company a ‘Vessel’ for Religious Beliefs, Grants Injunction Against Birth Control Benefit

On Thursday a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction to Domino’s Farms (DF) and its owner, Tom Monaghan, that blocks enforcement of the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act while Monaghan’s challenge to the constitutionality of the benefit moves forward. Domino’s Farms is a property-management company.

Monaghan is one of more than 20 secular, for-profit employers challenging the benefit as a violation of his, and his corporation’s, rights to religious exercise. Federal courts across the country have split on the issue of whether or not a for-profit, secular corporation has religious exercise rights. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff had issued a temporary restraining order back in December as soon as Monaghan and Domino’s Farms challenge was filed. Monaghan and Domino’s Farms asked the judge to convert that temporary order into a preliminary injunction, which would stay in force pending any appeal.

Bloomberg reports that “[t]he U.S. opposed that request, contending that ‘the relevant question’ was whether Monaghan’s religious beliefs were ‘substantially burdened by a regulation that applies only to the health plan of a wholly separate legal entity,’ according to court papers.”

By treating Mr. Monaghan and Domino’s Farms as one and the same, the court ignored the layers of legal separation between Mr. Monaghan and the corporation, only the latter of which is responsible for providing health coverage that includes contraceptive coverage,” Justice Department lawyers said in a Jan. 28 filing.

But ignoring the legal separation between Monaghan and Domino’s Farms is exactly what the court did. In the opinion granting the injunction, the court cites a string of recent decisions including Tyndale House and Hobby Lobby supporting the proposition that corporations can have religious rights and therefore standing to sue under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (one of the claims asserted by Monaghan and Domino’s Farms); in fact the court argues that Monaghan’s case is even stronger than the other for-profit, secular businesses who have brought similar challenges. Those businesses generally had more than one owner and may not have done things like make available to employees on the premises Catholic teachings and literature. Monaghan is sole owner and does this for his employees. “Unlike Tyndale, Stormans, and Townley—where the companies in question had multiple owners—Mongahan is DF’s sole shareholder, director, and decision-maker. As such, DF is even more closely held than those companies, making the beliefs of DF and its owners even more indistinguishable.”

The blurring of the relationship between corporate entity and owner is a dangerous one, but that doesn’t seem to bother the court which continues, “DF is merely the instrument through which Monaghan expresses his religious beliefs.”

Since the court found this religious right existed, a finding that was possible only by accepting the argument that Domino’s Farms is merely the “vessel” by which Monaghan expresses his religious beliefs, it was a much smaller leap to the next prong of the analysis—whether complying with the mandate substantially burdens that right. “Denying plaintiffs’ motion will result in a substantial burden on Monaghan’s right to free exercise of religion, since the mandate requires him to choose whether to comply and violate his beliefs, or accept the financial consequences of not doing so,” Zatkoff said in the 20-page decision. “Such an infringement upon plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights—even for a short time—constitutes irreparable injury,” Zatkoff wrote.

The court goes to great pains in more than one place in the opinion to make it clear it is not the court’s job to judge the sincerity of Monaghan’s beliefs, but to merely take him at his word that operating a for-profit, secular property management company is an expression of religious faith. And, while this is largely a true expression of the court’s role as a neutral arbitrator of claims, it is also true that in making a preliminary ruling such as whether or not for-profit corporations can benefit from protections designed to shield religious employers, the court must wade into those waters and judge the appropriateness of those religious beliefs in the context of the commercial sector. Failing to do so amounts to the kind of decision we have here—where First Amendment religious principles are invoked as a shield to break the law and where decades of jurisprudence detailing the important and necessary split between the beliefs of a for-profit business owner and the actions of his secular business venture.

To grant the injunction the court had to balance the interests of Monaghan and the Obama administration. Nowhere does the court consider the interests of the employees affected by loss of coverage of critical preventive care coverage they have earned, an oversight not made in other federal court decisions denying similar requests by for-profit companies. Instead the court views the balancing of interests narrowly as one simply between Monaghan and the federal government and concludes that exempting an organization with less than 100 employees “can hardly be considered a significant or ‘irreparable’ harm to the Government.”

The ruling means the benefit will be blocked while Monaghan’s claim to the constitutionality of the benefit proceeds on the merits. And while attorneys for the Obama administration have not yet said they will appeal this particular ruling, it is all but inevitable that the issue of for-profit, secular religious exercise rights will land before the Supreme Court, even as early as next term. In the meantime, though, Monaghan and Domino’s Farms were given a green light to move ahead with discriminating against employees by refusing to provide access to insurance plans that cover contraception in compliance with the law.

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  • Miri

    I’m sure nobody saw THAT one coming.

  • Princess Jourdan

    If a secular for-profit commercial business is a “vessel through which to express religious beliefs”, then that just opens the door wide open for business owners to tell their employees “If you work for me, then I get to dictate how you live your personal private life.” NOT GOOD.

    • bj_survivor

      But only their female employees, of course.

  • Denise Macy Foster

    In the even bigger picture, consider the fact that the Catholic church is investing in medical facilities all over the U.S. In some towns (such as Everett, WA), there is no non-Catholic hospital to be had; and the surrounding towns (Snohomish, Lake Stevens, Marysville) do not have hospitals… add to it the Catholic influence of Catholic -owned clinics as part of this hospital network… and you have a situation prime for an enforcement of Catholic beliefs in the area of medical care on all patients, Catholic or not (and many Catholics do not adhere to the strict teachings of the church).

    We need to get this fixed and fast… otherwise, your religious beliefs will soon be subject to the religious beliefs of your employer, your doctor, the nurses, the pharmacist… everybody but you.

  • bj_survivor

    It’s beyond time that we take health care out of the hands of employers completely and institute single-payer or even socialized health care. That will end this bullshit right quick.

  • nettwench14

    This is so outrageous. A corporation is not a religious organization, and it should be unconstitutional for an employer to impose his religious beliefs on his employees!! This is also discriminatory against women, too, unless they are going to deny men coverage for vasectomies and viagra. The insurance is a benefit of employment. The employer cannot dictate to his employees how they can spend their paycheck. This is absolutely no different. The employer is not paying for the birth control, the employer is only paying for the health insurance. You would think that health insurance companies would be opposing this, since covering contraception keeps down their expenses – it costs a lot more to be pregnant than it does to pay for the pill. This is a private matter up to a woman and her doctor. Is she going to have to go to her employer for a permission slip if she needs to take bc pills for a medical reason like endometriosis? Will physicians be forced to diagnose all their female patients as having acne or heavy periods so they can get the pill?

    The most outrageous thing about this is that IT HAS NEVER BEEN AN ISSUE BEFORE. 20 years ago you did not see Republicans trying to limit access to contraceptives. Why now? Why do employers all of a sudden need religious exemptions? I would really like to know the answer to that.

  • nettwench14

    And in Virginia, the attorney general Ken Cuccinelli wants to outlaw oral sex. Am I kidding? No, I am not kidding! And in North Carolina, they want to establish a state religion, and make it harder to file for divorce. Is there no end to the point in which Republicans want to insert themselves into people’s private lives?