The billionaire founder of Domino's Pizza has won a temporary court victory, with a federal judge blocking enforcement of part of the health care reform bill requiring most employers to provide a range of contraception and reproductive health services.
Some business owners and their staff see that as a violation of their religious rights.
Federal Judge Lawrence Zatkoff issued his order late Sunday, saying Thomas Monaghan had "shown that abiding by the mandate will substantially burden his exercise of religion."
"The (federal) government has failed to satisfy its burden of showing that its actions were narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest," said Zatkoff, a 1986 Reagan appointee. "Therefore, the court finds that plaintiffs have established at least some likelihood of succeeding on the merits" of their claim.
Monaghan filed the emergency petition this month, on behalf of himself and Domino's Farms Corp., a Michigan property management firm he operates, not directly related to the pizza-chain empire. Monaghan sold his majority interest in the pizza company in 1998.
The case will continue to be heard in the federal courts while the stay remains in effect. The Obama administration has the option of appealing the order.
The judge's opinion comes just days after two federal appeals courts in Chicago and St. Louis became the first to rule against enforcement for businesses of the contraceptives mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The policy was set to go into effect Tuesday for many companies whose new insurance year begins on January 1.
At issue is whether secular, for-profit enterprises-- owned and operated by those of a strong religious or personal faith-- are exempt from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The separate health care law -- dubbed Obamacare -- provides such exceptions for religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, of which Monaghan is a member. He argues individually that contraception or abortion does not constitute "health care" and involves immoral practices that destroy "innocent human life."
"Causing death can never be considered a form of medical treatment," said Monaghan in court papers.
Other religious-affiliated groups like parochial schools and church-run hospitals are also temporarily exempted until new final rules are written in coming months.
That followed complaints from a variety of entities over who exactly was covered under the mandates, and who could bring legal objections in court.
The Justice Department, on behalf of the Obama administration, said the 2010 law -- upheld this year by the Supreme Court -- was designed to provide a range of preventive health services through expanded coverage and lower costs.
Federal lawyers -- backed by a range of medical and abortion-rights groups -- said economically disadvantaged women in particular need affordable access to reproductive health services contained in the law, which it said was a "compelling governmental interest."
Under the law, companies with at least 50 employees must provide their female employees of child-bearing age insurance coverage for pregnancy-prevention care, including doctor visits and medicine.
Those firms face daily fines and tax penalties for failure to comply.
Other federal courts -- including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week-- have allowed the new mandates to go into effect. Sotomayor in an order December 26 said the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether individuals or companies can rightfully claim federal mandates under their constitutional rights of religious freedom.
That case involved Hobby Lobby Inc., and Mardel, Inc. and five family members involved in ownership and control of the corporations, who had protested the requirement.
Those separate companies said they would be required "to provide insurance coverage for certain drugs and devices that the applicants believe can cause abortions," which would be against their religious beliefs.
The petitioners said they would face irreparable harm if forced to choose between paying fines and complying with the requirement.
But Sotomayor -- who handles emergency appeals from the 10th Circuit -- said the applicants failed to meet "the demanding standard for the extraordinary relief," and that they could continue to pursue their challenge in lower courts and return to the higher court, if necessary, following a final judgment.
There was no indication when or if the high court would ultimately decide the religious freedom question. Several dozen separate lawsuits are pending in various lower federal courts.
The Michigan case is Monaghan v. Sebelius (12-15488).