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Religious employers lose contraceptive coverage case

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Another federal appeals court has ruled that religious colleges and charities are not wholly exempt from the health care reform law's so-called “contraceptive mandate.”

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled unanimously Monday that religiously affiliated nonprofit groups that object to providing their employees with cost-free coverage for contraceptives cannot use the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to shield themselves entirely from the reform law's coverage requirement, since they are permitted to pass that obligation on to their health insurers or third-party health plan administrators.

“Although the plaintiffs have identified several acts that offend their religious beliefs, the acts they are required to perform do not include providing or facilitating access to contraceptives,” Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote in the court's 24-page opinion. “Instead, the acts that violate their faith are those of third parties.”

The appeals court's decision immediately reverses three U.S. District Court rulings in favor of the plaintiff organizations, which include East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Westminster Theological Seminary, the University of Dallas, Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas Inc. and two Texas-based Catholic diocese.

Monday's ruling is the second by a federal appeals court favoring the government's authority to enforce the relaxed coverage requirement for religious nonprofits since the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2014 ruling for Hobby Lobby Inc., in which the court overturned a similar coverage requirement for “closely held” for-profit companies, citing conflicts with employers' religious exercise rights under the RFRA.