Today in court, will Eden Foods’ President, Michael Potter, change his tune? Potter is one of the many for-profit business owners suing the government because he does not want to cover birth control in his employees’ health plans, as required by the health care law. Some speculate that Potter’s recent statements have cast doubt on his motivation and undermined his case. During today’s oral arguments his lawyers will attempt to reconcile his legal claims with his many statements to the contrary.
Potter has spent weeks talking up in the media his opposition to the contraceptive coverage benefit. He’s stated that he opposes the contraceptive coverage benefit because he questions “what gives [the federal government] the right to tell [him] that [he has] to [cover birth control].” But here’s the thing: he’s admitted he would not have cared if it was “Jack Daniels or birth control”—it’s the principle. Potter’s admitted that the root issue—“the beginning and ending of the story”—is the government trying to tell him what to do. As he said, “[he’s] got more interest in good quality long underwear than [he has] in birth control pills.”
Today, during oral arguments for the preliminary injunction, his tune may change. Contrary to his many statements, his lawyers will try to convince a Michigan district court that Mr. Potter’s religious beliefs motivate his attempt to deny his employees (and their families) the comprehensive insurance they are entitled to. That’s because the claims Potter is making require a violation of religious exercise. But proving religious beliefs are at issue won’t be an easy task. When asked what particular religious belief led him to oppose the benefit, Potter said “Well, there isn’t any one particular religious belief… I find it hard to get my head around the question.”
Even if Potter actually opposes contraceptive coverage on religious grounds, his claims should be rejected – the laws his attorneys rely on do not allow employers to impose their religious beliefs on their employees. And, as the district court already recognized in denying Potter a temporary restraining order, “the purpose of the [benefit] is not to target religion, but instead to promote public health and gender equality.” In fact, in shaping the benefit the government has “made efforts to accommodate religious beliefs.”
As Potter said, he “isn’t an expert in anything…[He’s] in the food business. [He’s] qualified to have opinions about that and not issues that are purely women’s issues.” Potter should follow the advice given by droves of his former consumers —he should stick to making decisions about food products rather than his employees’ personal decisions about their reproductive health. As a seemingly ardent believer in autonomy, he could put his principles in action by recognizing the fundamental right of his employees to make health care decisions without his intrusion. Even if he refuses to do so, the court should recognize the right of his employees to make their own health care and religious decisions. That right belongs to individuals, not the companies employing them.