Back in September, we reported on the Sixth Circuit’s high-profile decision in Autocam Corp., et al. v. Sebelius, et al., Case No. 12-2673 (6th Cir.), which dismissed claims brought by several plaintiffs challenging the so-called contraception and abortion mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that went into effect last year under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111-148. This is the mandate that requires employers to cover contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs in their employee health care plans. Autocam is a group of for-profit, secular corporations owned and controlled by members of the Kennedy family who are practicing Roman Catholics. Autocam and the Kennedys brought suit against the government claiming that their forced compliance with the HHS mandate is a direct attack on their religious freedoms and violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb. But in a unanimous panel decision, the Sixth Circuit held that the Kennedys lacked standing as individuals to bring RFRA claims that arose from an obligation of their closely-held corporation. The Autocam panel also followed an earlier Third Circuit decision to hold that Autocam was not a “person” capable of “religious exercise” under the RFRA. The panel in Autocam thus affirmed the district court’s denial of Autocam’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
Earlier today, the Sixth Circuit relied on Autocam to reject a nearly identical challenge to the HHS mandate brought by Eden Foods, Inc., a for-profit, natural foods corporation, and its founder, Michael Potter, who is also the company’s chairperson, president, and sole shareholder, as well as a Roman Catholic who follows the Catholic Church’s teachings against contraception, abortion, and abortifacients. See Eden Foods, Inc. et al., v. Sebelius, et al., Case No. 13-1677 (6th Cir.) (PDF).
Like Autocam, the Eden Foods case involved claims brought by a for-profit, secular incorporated business and the owners of the closely-held corporation. Like the plaintiffs in Autocam, Eden Foods and Potter argued that the HHS mandate forces practicing Catholics to choose between incurring substantial financial penalties for ignoring the HHS mandate or violating their sincerely held religious beliefs. And like in Autocam, Eden Foods and Potter argued that complying with the HHS mandate would substantially burden their exercise of religion in violation of RFRA. The Autocam opinion was issued after the plaintiffs in Eden Foods had brought their appeal, and thus it was published circuit precedent that the Eden Foods panel was required to follow, absent an intervening Supreme Court decision or the en banc court overruling Autocam. The panel in Eden Foods thus affirmed the district court’s denial of Eden Food’s motion for a preliminary injunction and remanded to the district court with instructions to dismiss Potter’s claims for lack of jurisdiction.
The plaintiffs in Eden Foods tried mightily to distinguish their appeal from Autocam, but the panel could not ignore the similarities, and it was required to follow Autocam. The Eden Foods opinions adds to the split among Circuits addressing the constitutionality and enforceability of the HHS mandate, and it makes it increasingly more likely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on the legal battle.