Federal Court Rules Against Religious Groups Over Birth Control Coverage Opt-Out

Religious nonprofit groups must formally opt out of a U.S. health-care mandate if they wish to avoid a requirement that employers provide health-insurance coverage for birth control, a federal appeals court said.

The decision is the second win for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in three weeks. On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a core component of the health-care law, backing tax credits used by millions of Americans to buy insurance. The 6-3 ruling eliminated the most potent legal challenge to a law designed to cover at least 30 million uninsured people.

In Tuesday’s case, the nonprofits said their religious and free-speech rights were violated by a mandate that they must actively opt out of a rule requiring them to provide contraceptive coverage as a form of preventive care.

They cited last year’s ruling in another Supreme Court case, in which the high court said closely held companies can refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to their workers. But the Denver-based appeals court said that decision didn’t directly apply to religious nonprofits.

Under an “accommodation” in the health-care law, religious nonprofits won’t be penalized if they notify their group health plan or the government of their opt-out, the appeals court said.

“The accommodation relieves plaintiffs of their obligation to provide, pay for or facilitate contraceptive coverage, and does so without substantially burdening their religious exercise,” the appeals court ruled.

Kevin Walsh, a lawyer for the lead plaintiff, Denver-based nonprofit Little Sisters of the Poor, didn’t immediately respond to a call and e-mail after regular business hours seeking comment on the decision.

The case is Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, 13-1540, 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Denver). The Supreme Court case is Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 13-354.