OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Christian-oriented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging a mandate in the nation's health care overhaul law that requires employers to provide coverage for the morning-after pill and similar drugs.
The lawsuit by the Oklahoma City-based chain claims the government mandate is forcing the company's owners "to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits." Failure to provide the drugs in the company's health insurance plan could lead to fines of up to $1.3 million a day, the company said.
"By being required to make a choice between sacrificing our faith or paying millions of dollars in fines, we essentially must choose which poison pill to swallow," David Green, Hobby Lobby CEO and founder, said in a statement. "We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, alleges the Health and Human Services mandate is unconstitutional and requests an injunction to prohibit it from being enforced. Hobby Lobby is self-insured and will be required to comply with the mandate by Jan. 1, the start of its health insurance plan year.
"We are confident that the court will act quickly," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, which represents Hobby Lobby. Duncan said 27 other lawsuits have been filed nationwide over the mandate, mostly by nonprofit groups.
"This mandate violates the religious liberty of millions of Americans," Duncan said. "The government has turned a deaf ear to the rights of business owners."
Duncan said the lawsuit does not challenge rules regarding a variety of other birth-control measures.
Charles Miller, spokesman for the civil division of the Department of Justice, said the agency had no comment on the lawsuit.
Jane Scherdt, who was shopping in a store in Edmond, Okla., said she agreed with the business' decision to challenge the federal mandate.
"I think the government has overstepped its bounds for sure in requiring that," Scherdt said as she exited the store Wednesday. "It's part of a core belief in human dignity, the sancity of human life."
Hobby Lobby calls itself a "biblically founded business" and is closed on Sundays. Founded in 1972, the company now operates more than 500 stores in 41 states and employs more than 13,000 full-time employees who are eligible for health insurance coverage.
The lawsuit also was filed on behalf of another of the Green family's businesses, Mardel, Inc., a bookstore and education company also based in Oklahoma City that sells a variety of Christian-themed materials. The company operates 35 stores in seven states and has 372 full-time employees.
Hobby Lobby is the largest and only non-Catholic-owned business to file a lawsuit against the Health and Human Services mandate that forces all companies, regardless of religious conviction, to provide coverage of drugs the lawsuit alleges are abortion-inducing, including the morning-after pill and week-after pill.
"The Green family's religious beliefs forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says the family also has "a sincere religious objection" to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices and alleges they can cause the death of an embryo by preventing it from implanting in the wall of a woman's uterus.
The morning-after pill works by preventing ovulation or fertilization. In medical terms, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the wall of the uterus. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it can reduce a woman's chances of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent.
But critics of the contraceptive say it is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.
In his statement, Green said the federal government is challenging his faith by forcing his company to offer the morning-after and week-after pills in its insurance plan.
"These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith, and our family is now being forced to choose between following the laws of the land that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful and have supported our family and thousands of our employees and their families," Green said. "We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate."