(MCT) — An Oak Brook health care company and its Roman Catholic owners who don't want to include birth control in their employees' benefits still have no choice, despite exceptions to the contraception mandate proposed by the Obama administration this month.
The proposed rule, which attempted to address complaints that the mandate violates First Amendment rights, does not shield for-profit businesses with more than 50 employees. Those employers must provide health benefits, including contraception and some sterilization procedures, even if they object on religious grounds.
"The Obama administration is ignoring the religious liberty rights of small-business owners and other people of faith who pay their taxes like anyone else," said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society representing Triune Health Group of Oak Brook and its owners, Christopher and Mary Anne Yep. "They had the chance and they blew it. They ignored a large number of Americans, many of whom are providing jobs for a lot of folks."
Triune Health Group employs 80 workers, including about 50 nurses, counselors and other health care providers, and offers rehabilitation services for workplace injuries and health coaching to its 400 corporate and individual clients.
The Yeps are the first Catholic Illinois business owners to sue the Obama administration for enforcing the controversial contraception mandate. Tyndale House Publishers, an evangelical Christian publisher in Carol Stream, has filed suit in the District of Columbia.
More than 40 religious nonprofits, most of them Catholic, also have sued the Obama administration over the mandate. On Feb. 8, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Catholic Charities of Joliet, Springfield and Chicago, the Joliet and Springfield dioceses, and St. Patrick High School on the city's Northwest Side.
But the Yeps are the first and only business owners to sue the state of Illinois over a similar mandate that went into effect nine years ago.
"We're very clear about our beliefs. If people make this a battle over contraception, they're missing the entire point," Christopher Yep said. "In this country, you have a right to act in accordance with your beliefs."
The state has argued in court that Triune is a secular business that does not qualify as an exempt religious organization.
"To except out this important piece of women's health care that women need, it's taking the First Amendment free exercise rights a step too far," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo said in a DuPage County courtroom last month when Triune sought a temporary restraining order against the mandate, according to a transcript.
Triune's quest for an exemption highlights what is fast becoming the biggest hitch in the health care law and the newest wrinkle in the church-state debate, largely the domain of minority religious groups for the last half-century.
"These are uncharted waters here," Breen said. "Religious freedom is an issue I didn't hear a lot about in law school, partially because we know the founders of the country came here to avoid religious persecution. … The issues relating to Obamacare have forced the courts to look at this area of law."
Integrating church teachings: According to court documents, Christopher Yep, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, and his wife, Mary Anne, a registered nurse, opened Disability Management Network more than 20 years ago after hearing Focus on the Family founder James Dobson interview an author about biblically-based business models. The Yeps not only tried to incorporate biblical principles, they also tried to integrate Catholic church teachings, including the papal encyclical "On Human Work" written by then-Pope John Paul II, court files said.
"You have a lot of things you take in consideration when you run your own business," Mary Anne Yep said. "We very simply put into practice treating people well."
The couple changed the company's name to Triune — referring to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — in 2007 to reflect their religious convictions.
The parents of eight children — two aspiring priests and six who work for Triune — the Yeps attend Mass daily and participate in Eucharistic Adoration at Our Lady of the Woods Catholic Church in Orland Park. They're also involved in Regnum Christi, a conservative Catholic group. At Triune, new employees review a Mission and Virtues Agreement, which states Triune is an organization that "respects life from conception to natural death."
The Yeps also occasionally invite a priest into the office to counsel employees.
In 2004, the state passed a law requiring employers to cover contraception in their health care plans. According to court documents, the Yeps believed they were not providing the contraception coverage until they found out "very recently" that they were wrong.
They would not say when or how they made the discovery. They went through several different brokers to find suitable insurance, and even considered moving their business out of state. But the introduction of the federal mandate abrogated that solution. Litigation seemed to be the only way out.
"When we were approached — 'Would you be interested?' — there was no question in our minds that we'd be interested in suing the government to try to get relief," Mary Anne Yep said.
The state argues that no matter how sincere the religious elements of the business might be, Triune does not qualify for an exemption under the state standard, unless it self-insures.
"It does medical rehab and bill auditing and vocational rehabilitation," said Ioppolo, the assistant attorney general. "It is dealing with the subjects of this world, not the next. Bill auditing is not religious. It's not … charity."
Even if they self-insure, they don't qualify for the federal exemption, which is why they and about a dozen other for-profits are suing the Obama administration.
But experts say the state's Health Care Right of Conscience Act might work in the Yeps' favor.
"If I had to write a law to protect people like that, I'd write that law," said Mark Rienzi, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "I don't think I could've done it much better."
Mandate vs. morals: Brian Leiter, founder of the University of Chicago Law School's Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values, said he believes the state and federal governments have already gone too far to accommodate people like the Yeps. Their case illustrates the danger of so-called conscience clauses, he said.
"These Right of Conscience laws are outrageous," said Leiter, author of a book titled "Why Tolerate Religion?"
"The idea that society can't pass laws that require people to do things is the road to anarchy," he said. "The fact that people have a religious reason for not wanting to comply with the law isn't a very good reason."
Leiter said his opinion wasn't too different from the view articulated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a 1990 decision regarding two Native Americans who couldn't collect unemployment benefits after failing drug tests and losing their jobs. The drug, mescaline, had lingered in their systems after consuming peyote during a religious ceremony.
Three years later, public outrage pushed Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that allowed exemptions from certain rules, as long as those exceptions don't harm the welfare of society. About 20 states, including Illinois, eventually passed state versions.
While Leiter finds the Yeps' claim morally indefensible, it might have legal merit, he said.
"If we can tell a Catholic business as a matter of conscience they don't have to comply with the health care mandate, it won't destroy the health care mandate," Leiter said. Courts are sensitive to that, he said. "That's why the Illinois business challenging this may prevail at the end of the day."
Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the state will argue that the mandate ensures gender equality by giving employees the choice of whether to use contraception. In the court hearing last month, Ioppolo pointed out that the state mandate applies to the insurance companies, not to the companies who purchase insurance through them.
"If the Yeps decided to give their employees a $500 Christmas bonus and their employees went out and bought birth control pills with that, would Mr. and Mrs. Yep say: 'This is grave sin on my part'?" Ioppolo said. " 'It's violating my religious beliefs that my employees made an independent decision to do that.' So the fact that they are paying money to an insurance company to cover a service, and then their employees go out and do that — it's the same thing."
Mary Anne Yep insists it's not the same thing.
"They're forcing us to go against our conscience in providing services we don't want to provide," she said. "Insurance companies can have a menu. … We're being told what that menu will be and that's all you get."
Nathen Larsen, of Rockford, a Triune employee for 15 years, said he supports his bosses' objections. At a companywide meeting to prepare staff for the legal challenge, employees were told they still could set aside pretax dollars for health care costs, including contraception, he said. Triune's corporate culture has never been a secret to the people the Yeps hire, said Larsen, who now works on the management team.
"We have a multireligious staff," said Larsen, a Lutheran. "I think everybody looks at what the government is doing from an intrusive standpoint on mandating what we can and can't have. … It's ultimately the employees' responsibility to accept or reject the culture of that company."