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Catholic business owners take aim at birth control mandate in Detroit federal court

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

A Catholic legal group says parts of President Obama’s health care law violate their clients’ religious freedom.

Representatives for the Thomas More Law Center made their arguments on behalf of business owners in a Detroit federal court Friday.

The groups charge that they shouldn’t have to provide employees with health insurance that includes contraception coverage—the so-called “HHS mandate”-- in violation of their first amendment rights.

John Hunt is the Executive Director of Ligatus, an organization representing Catholic business executives and a plaintiff in the case.

“We, as individual Catholics who are leading and managing our businesses, we’re being forced to provide services to our employees that are completely contrary to the teachings of our Catholic faith," Hunt said.

Government lawyers argued there are “layers of legal separation” between a company and its owners, and "collapsing" that distinction would allow business owners to challenge all kinds of laws on first amendment grounds.

They maintain the government has a “compelling public interest” to mandate birth control coverage and other preventative women's health services. They argued doing so does not violate an individual business owner’s religious freedoms.

But Erin Mersino—who argued the case on behalf of the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center—says that argument is “simply not realistic.”

“To adopt the government’s argument, it would be to say that you have religious freedom within your own home, but if you engage in any sort of business activity, that you give up that religious freedom,” said Mersino.

The plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction against the mandate.

The case could well make its way up through the federal courts as a challenge to a particularly controversial part of the health care law. Similar cases are pending in federal courts in other states.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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