By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A Colorado business owned by a Catholic family does not have to comply with President Barack Obama's new healthcare mandate that private employers provide employees with insurance coverage of birth control, a Colorado federal judge ruled on Friday.
District Judge John Kane in Denver temporarily blocked the government from the enforcing the contraception requirement against the religious owners of Hercules Industries Inc, a private manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment.
The ruling only affects this plaintiff but opens the door for any company to seek relief on religious grounds. Lawyers for the Department of Health and Human Services argued that a temporary exemption for Hercules would interfere with the government's ability to implement the law. But Kane was not persuaded.
"This harm pales in comparison to the possible infringement upon (the Newland family's) constitutional and statutory rights," the judge wrote. He noted that the government had already created numerous exceptions for religious employers, exempting over 190 million health plan participants.
The law posed an imminent harm to the company's owners by forcing them to support contraception, sterilization and abortion in violation of their religious beliefs or face steep fines, Kane said.
Members of the Newland family, which owns Hercules, sued in April, challenging the provision that is part of the new health care law, the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
Roman Catholic bishops and many Republican lawmakers oppose the provision. The Catholic Church launched a campaign against it from Sunday Mass pulpits across the country. Catholic Church doctrine opposes artificial contraception but most American Catholics do not adhere to church policy.
Hercules provides a self-insured group plan for its 265 full-time employees that does not cover birth control, sterilization or abortion-inducing drugs. But the new regulation would require Hercules to provide such coverage by November 1, the ruling said.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressed disappointment with the decision in a statement.
"This lawsuit was not brought by a religious organization. Rather, it was brought by a for-profit commercial enterprise whose purpose is to sell HVAC equipment," she said, adding that healthcare decisions should be between women and their doctors, not their employers.
"Every American, including family business owners, should be free to live and do business according to their faith," Matthew Bowman, a lawyer for Hercules with the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a statement.
More than 20 lawsuits are pending around the country against the birth control mandate, brought by organizations including the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University of America and the Archdiocese of New York.
On July 17, another federal judge in Nebraska dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by seven states, two Catholic individuals and three Catholic non-profit institutions, finding that the plaintiffs did not face any immediate harm from the law.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)
(This story was corrected to fix the name of family to Newland instead of Newman)