Johnson Welded Products, Inc. v. Burwell

On March 24, 2016, AFLC filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the Obama administration’s HHS mandate and its so-called “accommodation” that the government is now enforcing against closely-held, for profit companies following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby.

This “accommodation,” however, is no such thing.  It still requires employers to provide insurance plans that authorize and facilitate coverage for contraception, sterilization, abortifacients (drugs that chemically induce abortion), and related education and counseling.  If an employer refuses to comply with this mandate, it will incur substantial penalty fines–fines in excess of a million dollars.

AFLC filed its lawsuit on behalf of Johnson Welded Products, Inc. (JWP), a family owned and operated company in Ohio, and on behalf of its President and principal owner, Ms. Lilli Johnson.  The HHS mandate and its newly-minted “accommodation” for closely-held for-profit companies will apply in full force to JWP on July 1, 2016, and will thus require Ms. Johnson and JWP, in JWP’s health care plan, to facilitate coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients or face crippling fines.

Ms. Johnson is a devout Catholic who opposes the HHS mandate and its “accommodation” based on her sincerely held religious beliefs.  As the President of JWP, she strives to run her company consistent with her Catholic beliefs.  Indeed, Ms. Johnson holds and actively professes religious beliefs that include traditional Christian teaching on the nature and purpose of human sexuality.  By going along with the government’s regulatory scheme, Ms. Johnson and JWP would be engaging in material cooperation with evil and scandal, which Ms. Johnson’s Catholic faith forbids.

Indeed, in accordance with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Ms. Johnson believes that human sexuality has two primary purposes: to “most closely unit[e] husband and wife” and “for the generation of new lives.”  Ms. Johnson believes and actively professes the Catholic Church teaching that “[t]o use this divine gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His Will.”

Consequently, the HHS mandate and its “accommodation” is forcing her to either follow her religious beliefs or to commit a grave sin.  If she chooses to follow her religious beliefs and convictions, then she and JWP will be subject to the federal government’s severe fines and penalties, which would make it exceedingly difficult for JWP to survive economically.

As noted in the complaint, the federal government’s own regulations describe the “accommodation,” which now applies to JWP and Ms. Johnson, as an alternative way to “comply” with the contraceptive services mandate—the same mandate the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014), and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia enjoined as applied against JWP and Ms. Johnson in 2014.  See Order & Judgment, Johnson Welded Products, Inc. v. Sebelius, No. 1:13-cv-00609 (ESH) (D.C. Oct. 24, 2014), ECF No. 11 (granting injunction).

As alleged in the complaint, the HHS mandate and its “accommodation” violate JWP’s and Johnson’s rights to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The complaint asks the federal court to declare that the HHS mandate is unconstitutional and to permanently enjoin its enforcement.

CASE UPDATE (June 15, 2016): AFLC filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik.  The Court granted the injunction the following day.

CASE UPDATE (October 24, 2017): Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik v Burwell, the government agreed to not enforce the HHS mandate against JWP, and it agreed to pay AFLC its attorneys’ fees.  Case is closed.