By Steve Olafson
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday denied a legal challenge to President Barack Obama's signature health reforms, ruling that the owners of a $3 billion arts and crafts chain must provide emergency contraceptives in their group health care plan.
The owners of Hobby Lobby asked to be exempted from providing the "morning after" and "week after" pills on religious grounds, arguing this would violate their Christian belief that abortion is wrong.
Judge Joe Heaton of the U.S. District for the Western District of Oklahoma denied the request for a preliminary injunction.
Heaton ruled that while individual members of the family that owns and operates Hobby Lobby have religious rights, the companies the family owns are secular, for-profit enterprises that do not possess the same rights.
Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., which assisted Hobby Lobby in the legal challenge, said Monday's ruling will be appealed.
Hobby Lobby, the largest non-Catholic U.S. company to go to court over the issue of contraceptives in the Affordable Care Act, is owned by the Green family of Oklahoma City. Patriarch David Green is ranked 79th on Forbes Magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $4.5 billion.
The family operate 514 Hobby Lobby stores in 41 states and employ 13,240 people. It funds a variety of Christian charities, closes its stores on Sundays and plays inspirational Christian music in its stores.
The Green family also sought contraceptive health insurance exemption for Mardel, their family-owned bookstore and educational supply company that has 35 stores in seven states with 372 employees.
The Oklahoma City-based companies already had been unwittingly providing the emergency contraceptives until they realized they were do so during the debate over provisions of what conservatives have dubbed "Obamacare," according to court testimony. They discontinued that coverage only recently, testimony showed.
The Food and Drug Administration lists the "morning after" and "week after" pills as emergency contraceptives. But abortion opponents like the Green family consider them abortion-inducing drugs because they are often taken after conception.
Hobby Lobby faces a January 1 deadline to comply with the mandate to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives. Failure to do so would entail a penalty of up to $1.3 million per day.
There are more than 40 other lawsuits challenging the health care mandate that requires that all group health plans provide emergency contraceptives, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
(Reporting by Steve Olafson; Editing by Nick Carey and Lisa Shumaker)