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S.C. auto dealer sues US over health care law

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Saying it violates his religious beliefs, South Charleston auto dealer Joe Holland is asking a judge to block the federal government from forcing him to include abortion and contraceptive coverage in his company's health insurance plan.

Backed by attorneys from the Texas-based Liberty Institute and Family Policy Council of West Virginia, Holland filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Charleston Monday asking the court to exempt him from federal health care provisions he says violate his constitutional rights.

At issue in the case are regulations developed following the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requiring businesses with more than 50 employees to provide a minimum level of health insurance for their employees, including preventive reproductive care.

President Barack Obama's administration has pushed for the preventive care rule as a way to expand coverage and ease the costs of birth control, which can average about $600 a year.

"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a 2012 statement.

"This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing," Sebelius said.

According to federal rules, that coverage must include U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods and procedures -- including versions of the so-called "morning-after pill," which works up to five days after sex.

Coverage must also include patient education and counseling regarding those products and procedures.

Holland owns the Joe Holland Chevrolet dealership in South Charleston, which employs 150 people.

While the company currently provides health insurance to its employees, the plans do not include contraceptive or abortion coverage.

In the complaint filed Monday, Holland said his current policy is set to expire at the end of the month. A new policy, subject to the new federal guidelines, would take effect July 1.

Holland, who describes himself as a born-again Christian, said in an affidavit supporting the complaint he felt it was his duty to operate his business according to his religious beliefs.

"I believe that running Holland Chevrolet in accordance with the teachings of the Bible is a ministry to its employees, its customers, and the community of which it is a part," Holland said.

Holland Chevrolet's mission statement, posted on the company's website, emphasizes "Our Corporate purpose is to glorify and honor God by being faithful stewards for all that is entrusted to us."

The dealership is closed on Sundays to honor the Exodus 20 commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." It also displays the ichthus -- the Greek symbol for a fish used by early Christians as a sign of their faith -- on its website, signage and advertisements.

The dealership also has a staff chaplain.

According to the complaint, Holland experienced a religious conversion in 1996, which led him to become a believing and practicing born-again Christian. He now attends Maranatha Fellowship Church in St. Albans on a weekly basis, attends a weekly men's Bible study group and delivers religious readings on Christian radio broadcasts.

He supports ministries like the youth-oriented Silver Ring Ministry and Life Chain that promote abstinence before marriage and pro-life religious teachings.

He also is a board member of Believe in West Virginia, the group that brought controversial abstinence-only advocate Pam Stenzel to two local high schools recently.

Holland said he believes life begins at conception and it would be "sinful" to allow the coverage the government now requires.

"One of my sincerely held religious beliefs is that all innocent human life is sacred to its Creator and that it is profoundly immoral to procure, facilitate, fund or endorse any form of abortion," Holland said.

Under federal regulations, companies not complying with the coverage guidelines can be subject to a $100-per-day, per-employee fine. The lawsuit says this would expose the company to fines of up to $15,000 each day, or more than $5.4 million a year.

"We face an impossible dilemma," Holland said.

He said he would be forced either to violate his religious beliefs or to incur severe penalties.

"The severity of the penalties is such that it could threaten the financial viability of Holland Chevrolet," he said.

Holland referred press questions to Jeremiah Dys, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia.

While some faith-based organizations, including non-profit hospitals run by the Catholic church, have challenged the regulations, Dys said Holland was the first West Virginia business owner to challenge the rules in federal court.

The organization is currently tracking about 60 cases representing 200 businesses nationwide challenging the rules. Dys said about 20 of those cases already have resulted in injunctions exempting businesses from the rules.

Dys said he hopes Holland's effort leads more people to challenge the rules.

"I hope there are more businesses out there that have the kind of bravery that Joey Holland has here to stand up to the federal government to say you can't tell me what to do," he said.

"No person should be penalized for obeying his or her own religious beliefs," Dys said. "That's not how we operate as a free country."

The case has been assigned to Judge Thomas Johnson.

Dys said the judge has scheduled a conference call Wednesday morning on Holland's request for a temporary restraining. A further hearing on Holland's request for an injunction to block the federal requirements will be scheduled at a later date.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-4836.

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