Eden Foods is one of several for-profit corporations challenging Obama Administration rules requiring most employer-provided health plans to cover birth control, on the questionable legal theory that Eden is immune to these rules because its owner has religious objections to birth control. According to Eden’s legal complaint, Eden’s owner “Michael Potter holds religious beliefs that prevent him from participating in, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting contraception, abortion, and abortifacients.”
In an interview with Salon’s Irin Carmon, however, Potter’s supposed religious beliefs are unusually absent. Rather, Carmon quotes Potter raising objections to the birth control rules that have nothing whatsoever to do with his faith:
“I’ve got more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills,” [Potter] said to me. . . . [I] asked why he said he didn’t care about birth control, since he filed a suit about it and all.
“Because I’m a man, number one and it’s really none of my business what women do,” Potter said. So, then, why bother suing? “Because I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.” He added, “I’m not trying to get birth control out of Rite Aid or Wal-Mart, but don’t tell me I gotta pay for it.”
The reason why these quotes matter is because there is nothing in federal law allowing someone to sue because they generally object to having the government tell them what to do — if that were the case, speed limits, workplace safety laws and the minimum wage would all be illegal. Instead, a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permits people to challenge federal laws only when those laws “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” Potter can’t get into federal court because he does not like the birth control law, he can only get into court if he has a religious objection to birth control. And yet, here he is telling a reporter that “the beginning and end” of his objection to the Obama Administration’s rules is that he does not think the federal government should have the power to tell him to provide certain benefits to his employees — not that he believes that such laws burden his faith.
If Potter does not actually object to the birth control rules on religious grounds, then that’s the end of his case. As a federal appeals court explained in a decision that is binding upon the judge hearing the Eden Foods case, a plaintiff may only invoke the protections of RFRA when a law burdens “a religious belief rather than a philosophy or way of life,” and when the plaintiff’s purported religious belief is “sincerely held.”
As we have previously explained, the case for allowing for-profit corporations to claim that they are immune to federal law on religious groups is very weak — at least under current law. In the Eden Foods case, however, there may not be a need to reach the broader question of whether a for-profit company can immunize itself from the law because of its owner’s religious views. Based on Carmon’s reporting, it’s not at all clear that Potter actually holds the religious beliefs that make up the backbone of his case.