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Court denies religious groups seeking 'contraceptive mandate' opt-out

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Religious charities and schools seeking an outright exemption to the health care reform law's so-called prescription “contraceptive mandate” were denied again on Friday in federal court.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Brooklyn unanimously ruled that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not excuse religious non-profit organizations that object to providing their employees with cost-free coverage for contraceptives — as mandated under the health care reform law — from passing the coverage obligation on to their group health insurer or third-party administrator in light of those objections.

“Just because the plaintiffs feel complicit in these third-party actions does not mean that the regulations impose a 'burden' on their religious practice, much less a burden that is 'substantial' under the RFRA,” Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote in the court's 47-page opinion.

Judge Pooler concluded that the only burden inflicted on religious charities that choose to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage to their employees is “merely one of notification, equivalent to the burden historically placed on draft registrants to indicate their conscientious objections to military service.”

“The rights conferred by the First Amendment and RFRA do not include a right to have the government or third parties behave in a manner that comports with an individual's religious beliefs,” Judge Pooler said.

The court's decision reverses a U.S. District Court judge's previous ruling granting the Catholic Archdiocese of New York's request for a permanent injunction against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, marking the seventh consecutive appellate ruling to uphold HHS' authority to enforce its recently finalized relaxed coverage requirement for religious non-profit groups.