Several Roman Catholic organizations have challenged Obama administration rules requiring religious colleges and hospitals (but not churches themselves) to offer preventive health care, including contraceptive coverage, with no deductibles or co-pays. Even though the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of most of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the courts still have t o decide whether those institutions are exempt from the contraception requirement under a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Our view is that church-affiliated charitable and educational institutions should offer such coverage, even if they are self-insured. Not all of their employees are Catholic, and even many Catholics make a personal choice to use contraceptives. The Obama administration’s decision to provide only a narrow religious exemption is the right one.

That said, religious colleges and hospitals are at least part of a church’s religious mission, so the discussion makes sense. The same cannot be said for a company that sells heating, ventilation and air conditioning services. Yet a federal judge in Colorado is taking seriously a complaint by Hercules Industries, an HVAC company owned by a Catholic family, that the contraceptive mandate violates its rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Senior U.S. District Judge John L. Kane issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the contraceptive mandate against Hercules.

It’s troubling that Kane sees a for-profit secular company as in any way analogous to a parochial school or Catholic hospital. It’s not a new idea: Earlier this year Senate Republicans unsuccessfully proposed a bill to let any employer drop health coverage that didn’t comport with his religious or moral beliefs. But it is a bad idea. Reasonably interpreted, neither the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nor the First Amendment provides an escape hatch for profit-making businesses from the ACA, any more than it exempts them from civil rights laws.

Los Angeles Times (July 31)