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Justice changes stance, asks for contraceptive mandate ruling

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The Obama administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if religious nonprofit groups should be exempted from the federal health care reform law's so-called contraceptive mandate.

In a brief filed Wednesday, the Justice Department asked the high court to accept the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington's petition to hear its challenge of the health care reform law rule. The rule requires religious nonprofit employers to offer their employees cost-free prescription contraceptives or, under an accommodation finalized in July, pass the obligation to their health insurers or third-party health plan administrators.

The request reverses the Justice Department's previous stance opposing the Washington archbishop's request for a hearing, as well as petitions to review of six other federal appeals court rulings — all of which upheld the government's accommodation for religious nonprofits.

In its brief, the Justice Department said its change was due to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' recent ruling siding with the religious charities. The 8th Circuit's ruling created “a circuit conflict on an important question of federal law that should be resolved by this court,” the Justice Department said in its brief.

“This court should resolve the circuit conflict over the viability of the challenges to the accommodation, but the pending petition in (the archbishop's case) is a more suitable vehicle in which to do so,” according to the Justice brief. “The (archbishop's) petition presents all of the health coverage arrangements that have given rise to (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) challenges to the accommodation.”

The Washington archbishop case also addresses both key tests of the federal religious freedom law, which the plaintiff charities have argued protects them from participating in any activity that violates their religious beliefs, the Justice Department said.