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Mennonite firm sues over Obamacare's contraception role

A Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker has filed a federal suit charging that the Affordable Care Act's mandate on contraception coverage violates its constitutional rights.

A Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker has filed a federal suit charging that the Affordable Care Act's mandate on contraception coverage violates its constitutional rights.

Conestoga Wood Specialties, citing the principles of religious freedom on which William Penn founded Pennsylvania, says in its suit, filed in U.S. District Court, that to accord to its Mennonite beliefs, it would be "sinful and immoral for the company to participate in, pay for, facilitate or otherwise support any contraception" that would have the effect of an abortion.

The Lancaster County-based company, which employs 950 people at plants in several locations across the country, is the latest firm to join a growing number of Catholic and evangelical Christian-owned businesses - among them the Oklahoma-based craft store chain Hobby Lobby - suing over the contraception-coverage mandate.

"Because of that provision in the policy, because our clients are paying for it, because of their religious beliefs, they are very opposed to any form of killing - they don't think they should be forced into providing coverage that has the potential for taking of a life," said Chuck Proctor, a Chadds Ford-based lawyer representing the firm and its principals, Norman Hahn and his two sons.

The federal mandate becomes effective for the company's 950 employees with the renewal of its policy with Health America in January, Proctor said.

It will require them to provide insurance that covers birth-control products like Plan B, the so-called morning-after pills, and the "week-after" pill.

Proctor, who is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the mandate's implementation, said his clients believe life begins at conception.

A Health and Human Services agency official, speaking on background, said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most health-insurance plans will now provide for free women's preventive services, including contraception.

The policy also ensures that if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for, or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free.

In its suit, Conestoga argues that it is not a religious organization and therefore it does not qualify for that exemption. At the same time, not providing the coverage would subject the firm to fines of as much as $100 a day per employee.

"They'd be bankrupt in a week," Proctor said.

He said the Conestoga suit likely is the first such action involving a Mennonite-owned company.

Mennonites are an Anabaptist sect who settled in large numbers in Lancaster County.

There are 60 Mennonite groups, ranging from horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonite farmers to those whose members work as white-collar professionals and live in urban settings.

The company, which has five locations across the United States, including Seattle, employs non-Mennonites, Proctor said.

"The more traditional Mennonites would have more reservations about contraception, but it's not much of an issue with mainstream Mennonites more assimilated in American culture," said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College and a leading authority on the Mennonites and Amish. "In the final analysis, among mainstream Mennonites, it's a private family decision, whereas it's something church leaders among traditional Mennonites would admonish against."