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Religious groups denied contraceptive coverage waiver

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The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied requests from religious colleges and charities for outright exemptions to the federal health care reform law's so-called “contraceptive mandate.”

In its 2-1 ruling against the Baltimore, Maryland-based Little Sisters of the Poor Inc. and eight other Christian charities and universities, a three-judge panel of the Denver-based appeals court held 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.

Last year, the Obama administration issued an interim accommodation — which was finalized last week — permitting religious nonprofit organizations to pass the coverage obligation on to their health insurers or third-party health plan administrators.

“Although we recognize and respect the sincerity of the plaintiffs' beliefs and arguments, we conclude the accommodation scheme relieves them of their obligations under the mandate and does not substantially burden their religious exercise under the RFRA or infringe upon their First Amendment rights,” Judge Scott Matheson wrote in the court's majority opinion.

In his partial dissent opinion, Judge Bobby Baldock said he supports the court's findings regarding fully insured universities and charities, but not for those that self-insure their health benefits.

“In reality, the accommodation scheme forces the self-insured plaintiffs to perform an act that causes their beneficiaries to receive religiously objected-to coverage,” Judge Baldock wrote in his dissent. “The fines the government uses to compel this act thus impose a substantial burden on the self-insured plaintiffs' religious exercise.”

Tuesday's ruling is the third by a federal appeals court favoring the government's authority to enforce the relaxed coverage requirement for religious nonprofit organizations 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.