A requirement of President Barack Obama’s health care law that group insurance plans cover contraceptives may violate religious freedom, a U.S. appeals court said, widening a split among the circuits and making it more probable the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue.
A three-judge panel in Washington said a lower court was wrong to deny an injunction sought in a lawsuit by two brothers who are Catholic. The men sued on religious grounds, seeking to exclude contraceptive coverage from health plans provided by their produce-distribution companies. While the panel didn’t rule on the actual challenge, they disagreed with the trial judge’s determination that the suit was unlikely to succeed.
“We must determine whether the contraceptive mandate imposed by the act trammels the right of free exercise — a right that lies at the core of our constitutional liberties — as protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown. “We conclude it does.”
At least two other U.S. Court of Appeals have addressed the constitutionality of the contraception mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with different results, as more suits over the rule have risen through the federal courts.
In July, the Obama administration defeated a challenge to the law by Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a cabinet maker owned by Mennonite Christians who argued the requirement violates their religious beliefs. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in a 2-1 decision sided with the government.
In June, a federal appeals court in Denver ruled that Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. would probably prevail with its argument that the provision violates the rights of the company and its owners under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the Washington case, the appeals court said a federal judge erred in not granting the brothers a reprieve from the rule while their lawsuit challenging it proceeds.
The health care law requires most people to obtain coverage starting next year. It also expands the availability of the federal-state Medicaid program and compels businesses with more than 50 full-time workers to offer coverage or pay a penalty.
That insurance must include at no extra cost to the employee all forms of Federal Drug Administration-approved contraception as prescribed by a health-care provider.
The provision sparked lawsuits from the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of New York and Washington, the Catholic University of America, Notre Dame University and for-profit businesses in Michigan, Missouri and elsewhere.
In a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago earlier this year, Justice Department lawyer Alisa Klein told a three-judge panel that the Religion Freedom Restoration Act didn’t alter the basic legal principle that corporations are distinct from their owners in terms of constitutional rights, a distinction she said corporate challengers of the mandate seek to blur.
Congress “has long distinguished between religious organizations and for-profit secular corporations,” the Justice Department said in a March 1 filing. “No court has ever found a for-profit company to be a religious organization for the purposes of federal law.”
The Washington case is Gilardi v. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-104, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).
–With assistance from Andrew Harris in Chicago. Editors: David E. Rovella, Mary Romano
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