The federal government cannot force a Catholic-owned Michigan company to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraceptives, and drugs that could cause abortion, a court ruled Jan. 5.

"Coercing citizens to violate their conscientious religious beliefs makes a mockery of the very notion of religious freedom," Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society.

He said the ruling "sets another strong precedent for the free exercise of religious faith on the part of all American citizens."

John Kennedy, CEO of Autocam Medical, LLC, and other family members who own the company, had filed a legal challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate that companies must cover drugs and procedures that violate Catholic religious and ethical principles.

Before the mandate was implemented, the company had designed an insurance plan with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan that did not violate the Kennedy family's Catholic beliefs.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan revisited its three-year-old ruling against the company.

Judge Robert J. Jonker, who had previously ruled against Autocam Medical, said that according to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 ruling Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, the government may not require the family business "to provide its employees with health coverage for contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and related patient education and counseling to which plaintiff objects on religious grounds."

Brejcha said the decision protected the company's rights under the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Ave Maria Law School professor Patrick T. Gillen served as special counsel in the case for the Thomas More Society and helped draft a petition for U.S. Supreme Court review.

Had the Supreme Court decision not issued its 2014 ruling, many business owners could have faced the prospect of paying steep fines or agreeing to a health plan that violated their religious beliefs. More than 300 plaintiffs throughout the U.S. have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate.