Businessman Greg Hall felt torn between his Catholic teachings and a piece of the federal health law that required him to pay the full cost of his employees' birth control.
On Monday, he was part of a cadre of Minnesota business owners cheering the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow certain firms to skirt the rule by citing religious objections.
"I'm grateful and gratified," said Hall, whose company in St. Joseph, Minn., manufactures drilling pumps and parts. "It seemed the only option was to violate my moral beliefs by offering the services or by stripping our employees of medical insurance."
Hall, an ordained deacon who lives in Texas, filed one of at least eight lawsuits by Minnesota businesses challenging the Affordable Care Act's requirement to cover contraceptive services and devices for female workers at no added cost.
While their cases will move forward, the high-court's 5-4 ruling makes success likely, said attorney Erick Kaardal, who represents seven of the companies. "It's a huge victory for my clients," Kaardal said. "Our argument is that the government can't require an employer to provide coverage for contraception, and there isn't a reciprocal right for employees to receive it. There's nothing in the Constitution saying there's a right to federally guaranteed birth control."
Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota was swift to decry the ruling, calling it "deeply disappointing and troubling," and saying it gives bosses the right to discriminate against American women and their families.
"It is unbelievable that in 2014, there's still a fight going on about whether women should have access to birth control," CEO Sarah Stoesz said in a statement. "We know firsthand that access to birth control is both a health care and economic concern for women."
The ruling arose from a case brought by Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-craft stores, and two other family-owned businesses, which objected to paying for emergency contraceptives.
Minnesota businesses used the same legal justifications in their cases, but argued more broadly against the entirety of the contraceptive mandate, which covers about 20 devices and services, including various types of birth control, tubal ligation and counseling.
The Supreme Court ruling does not strike down the contraception provisions, but allows closely held businesses with more than 50 workers to seek an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
It's impossible to know how many Minnesota businesses might seek a waiver, but Kaardal doesn't expect the floodgates to open. Companies that want to make a case for religious freedom must file lawsuits proving that their religious liberties are "substantially burdened" and that their business interests and religious ideals are linked.
"Each business has to sue one at a time," he said. "That makes it costly to get the exemption, so there will be fewer exemptions."
'A crisp understanding'
Hall said he spent "tens of thousands" of dollars on his case, but that it was worth it. Thirty-eight to 44 people work at the firm, American Manufacturing Company, just west of St. Cloud. Four are women.
With a little negotiating — and a temporary injunction from the courts — Hall was able to work out a special accommodation with Medica, the company's insurance carrier, to carve out the contraceptive services. But smaller businesses don't have such leverage, argued Paul Archambault, owner of New Brighton-based Stinson Electric, who also filed a lawsuit over the birth control provision of the health law.
None of Minnesota's insurance companies sells a health plan without birth control coverage, and the court's ruling doesn't shed much light on how to deal with businesses' religious objections.
The state's largest insurance companies are still reviewing the ruling, said Minnesota Council of Health Plans spokeswoman Eileen Smith. "We really need to have a crisp understanding of the possible implications," she said. "Once health plans determine the true impact of the ruling, they will work with specific employers to address their concerns."
With just 15 workers, Archambault said he doesn't have enough sway to cut a deal with HealthPartners.
"From the standpoint of a small company that's a conscientious objector like us, we still have a battle on our hands," he said.
Archambault and his wife have been opponents of abortion for more than 20 years, he said. As it happens, the only female employees that are eligible for contraceptive coverage are his wife and daughter. A staunch Catholic, Archambault said he did not want to get involved in his employees' reproductive issues. "The bottom line is, our people are very highly compensated; they're tradespeople," he said. "They make enough money that if they want to use birth control they can certainly afford to pay for their own."