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Michigan birth control battle could be headed to the US Supreme Court

Seven states are suing the Obama administration over its position on birth control.
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Seven states are suing the Obama administration over its position on birth control.

A Michigan CEO says he'll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a law requiring employers to cover their worker’s contraceptives. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of more than 30 similar lawsuits currently making their way through the nation’s courts.

But this one could be the case that makes it to the Supreme Court.

Here’s why.

A sympathetic story?

John Kennedy is the CEO of Autocam Corp, a manufacturing company based outside Grand Rapids.

He’s also a Roman Catholic.

That faith, he says, is what informs his sense of social justice. Kennedy says that drives him to offer his employees great wages and health insurance. For example, Kennedy says his employees pay no premiums for their health insurance.

That same faith, he says, makes it impossible for him to cover contraceptives, including the morning after pill, also known as Plan B.

But Kennedy says he doesn’t want to stop giving his employees health coverage.

For one thing, he says his employees have been fine with the current coverage plan, which leaves them to pay out of pocket for things like birth control pills, Plan B, and abortions.

For another, Kennedy says he doesn’t think any health care plan they could buy on the federal exchange would be nearly as good.

What the mandate means

But the Affordable Care Act says most employers 1) have to provide their full-time workers with insurance, and 2) all insurance plans must cover 100% of the cost of most contraception, including Plan B.

The reasoning here, according to Health and Human Services officials, is that even small costs can keep women from getting essential care.

And the Obama administration says they’ve offered compromises: they’ll waive the contraceptive mandate for non-profit religious organizations, like Catholic Churches or schools.

And under the ACA or Obamacare, employers like Kennedy can choose not to provide coverage to his employees.

In that case, Kennedy would pay a $2,000 penalty for each employee, or he could give them money to go buy coverage on the healthcare exchange.

Neither of which is an option that Kennedy finds satisfying.

Court battles continue

Kennedy’s lawsuit already made it to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against him.

The Circuit Court ruled that there was a jurisdiction problem with taking up the case, and therefore the lower courts rulings should be upheld.

Those courts also point out that Kennedy runs a secular, for-profit corporation, and that as such his family’s religious beliefs should be separate from his obligations as a responsible employer.

But Kennedy disagrees.

“This ruling says I need to park my faith at the door of the business, and not have it influence the way I live my life or the business," he says.

Kennedy’s legal team is currently putting together a petition to ask the Supreme Court to intervene.

And a religiously affiliated political group, CatholicVote.org, is publicly championing Kennedy’s case.

Their homepage features a short video about Kennedy, Autocam Corp, and Obamacare.

It’s called “The Fight for Religious Freedom Continues,”and it’s got good production quality, complete with somber music, and shots of Autocam’s employees gazing steadily at camera.

When asked if he believes his case has been “selected” by similarly minded Catholic activists as the most favorable one to represent their cause, Kennedy demurs.

It might be, he says, because if the court rules against him, his employees will be the ones who suffer. Their healthcare alternatives just aren’t as good as what he’s offering them now, he says.

There’s another reason why Kennedy’s case could be “the one.”

The sixth circuit court may have ruled against him.

But it comes as another court, the 10th Circuit Court, ruled in favor of a different organization asking for the contraceptive mandate to be struck down. In that case, the business is Hobby Lobby.

Those contradictory rulings could be what gets the Supreme Court to take up the case, according to a spokesperson for Catholic Vote.

But ultimately, Kennedy says he believes this is a matter of religious freedom, plain and simple.

“Now the government is saying, we need you to change that because we think you should do it differently," says Kennedy, “and we recognize that that violates your religious beliefs. But we don't care.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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