Appeals court upholds health care law contraceptive mandate

AP News
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Posted: Feb 18, 2016 6:27 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal appeals court in Atlanta on Thursday upheld a contraceptive mandate included in the president's health care law but is delaying the implementation of its ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court can weigh in on the issue.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to reject challenges to the mandate in a single opinion addressing two separate cases, one filed by nonprofit organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church in Georgia and the other by Catholic broadcaster Eternal Word Television Network in Alabama.

The organizations had argued the mandate and a related rule against those entities would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a person's religious practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 23 on the question, and the 11th Circuit said the mandate and associated opt-out rule should not be enforced against the Georgia and Alabama organizations until the high court rules.

Under the health care law, most health insurance plans have to cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives as preventive care for women, free of cost to the patient. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses are exempt from the mandate, but the other affiliated organizations, including schools, charitable institutions and hospitals are not.

Those groups are required to submit a form to their third-party insurers saying they object to the coverage. The insurer will then make the coverage available at no cost to the institution or the employee.

The religiously affiliated groups had claimed that this requirement was overly burdensome to their practice of their religion because it makes them a party to something that is against their religion.

"Congress included the contraceptive mandate in the ACA to improve women's health and public health generally. There is no evidence whatsoever that the mandate was enacted in an attempt to restrict religious exercise," Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat decried government efforts to "force them to participate in a complicated regulatory scheme."

"Doing so, these parties sincerely believe, would make them complicit in violating the sanctity of human life," he wrote.

EWTN chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw said in an emailed statement that the broadcaster is extremely disappointed.

"This decision by the Court of Appeals ignores the arguments that EWTN and numerous plaintiffs around the country have made with regard to this mandate," he said. "In effect, this decision orders EWTN to violate its religious beliefs and comply with the government's HHS mandate or pay massive fines to the IRS."

EWTN, which has studios in the Birmingham suburb of Irondale, offers programming available in more than 140 countries and territories.

Lawyers for the Georgia Catholic organizations did not immediately respond to after-hours emails seeking comment Thursday.