Last week, Judge Lawrence Zatkoff of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled in favor of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan and his secular property management company, Domino’s Farms Corporation, and blocked the enforcement of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). Monaghan v. Sebelius, 12-15488 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 14, 2013). The Contraception Coverage Mandate requires employers to include coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods for their employees. If an employer with at least 50 employees fails to comply with the mandate, the employer faces a fine of $100 per day per employee, tax penalties, and enforcement actions for non-compliance.
Monaghan, a devout Catholic, argued that complying with the mandate would force him to violate his religious beliefs, as he views contraception as an immoral practice and grave sin. In turn, if Monaghan chose not to comply with the Mandate, he would be subject to a penalty of approximately $200,000 per year. He also did not want to completely forego providing health insurance coverage to his employees since that would make his company less competitive when compared to companies that provided their employees with such coverage.
In his suit, Monaghan asserted that the Mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) and the First Amendment. Monaghan also filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction seeking to enjoin the government from enforcing the Mandate against him and his company. Judge Zatkoff determined that Monaghan’s First Amendment and RFRA claims were likely to succeed: “Because [Monaghan’s] claims involve a First Amendment right, and because the Court has found a likelihood that [his] RFRA claim will succeed on the merits, the Court finds that irreparable harm could result to [Monaghan].”
The Court included an interesting analysis in which it determinate that the Mandate imposed a substantial burden on Monaghan’s religious exercise. Since the Mandate forced Monaghan to either violate his sincere religious belief or pay significant penalties if he did not comply, the government essentially placed him in a “Catch-22” and this dilemma constitutes a substantial burden on Monaghan’s free exercise of religion. The government compared this Catch-22 to the situation in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), in which the Supreme Court found that a Seventh-day Adventist’s religious beliefs were substantially burdened when he was essentially forced to choose between following his beliefs and forfeiting unemployment benefits or disobeying one of his beliefs in order to accept work.
Another important point made by Judge Zatkoff relates to determining the sincerity of one’s religious beliefs. Judge Zatkoff noted that it is not “[t]he Court’s task . . . to question whether providing coverage is against Monaghan’s religious beliefs; that much is largely taken on Monaghan’s word.”
The Court further determined that the government had not shown a compelling interest to enforce the Contraception Coverage Mandate with respect to this particular plaintiff. The government claimed that the Mandate furthered two important interests: promoting the public health and providing women with effective preventive health care. The Court rejected the notion that these interests were compelling as applied to Monaghan, since the Mandate contains numerous other exemptions that results in approximately 190 million individuals being outside its coverage.
While this case does not directly involve any RLUIPA claims, the reasoning used by Judge Zatkoff to address Monaghan’s RFRA claim is closely tied to a RLUIPA analysis. A particularly significant point Judge Zatkoff made that will benefit religious institutions in the future is that it is not a court’s job to inquire or determine whether a plaintiff’s religious beliefs are sincere; rather, the court’s job is to determine whether such a burden is considered substantial. This determination seems to exemplify the strong manner in which federal courts strive to protect individuals’ constitutionally mandated religious freedom. A copy of the full opinion and order can be found at http://www.thomasmore.org/sites/default/files/files/Monaghan%20DFCorp_%20PI%20031413.pdf.
The attorneys of Dalton & Tomich, plc, have extensive experience litigating on behalf of religious institutions whose constitutional rights have been violated. If you believe the rights of you or your religious organization have been violated, please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss your matter.