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Religious groups must comply with contraception mandate, court rules


Religious colleges and charities are not totally exempt from the health care reform law's provision requiring employers to provide cost-free coverage for contraceptives and other preventive health services, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pittsburgh overturned a lower court's previous rulings barring the federal government from enforcing the coverage requirement against Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and several Catholic-affiliated organizations in Pittsburgh and Erie and Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Although the Obama administration relaxed the coverage requirement last year by allowing religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations to submit a form to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department declaring their objection to the requirement — thereby authorizing their health insurer or third-party administrator to offer their employees with contraceptive coverage outside of the group health benefit plan — the plaintiff organizations argued that the mere act of submitting the form makes them “complicit” in providing health care services that violate their religious beliefs.

The 3rd Circuit panel rejected those arguments on Wednesday, ruling that the Obama administration's accommodation for religiously affiliated employers does not conflict with their rights under federal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“This is not a situation where the self-certification form enables the provision of the very contraceptive services that the appellees find sinful,” Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote in the court's 49-page opinion. “Submitting the self-certification form means only that the eligible organization is not providing contraceptive coverage and will not be subjected to penalties. By participating in the accommodation, the eligible organization has no role whatsoever in the provision of the objected-to contraceptive services.”

So far, religious schools charities and other institutions have been denied exemption from the relaxed coverage requirement in four federal appellate circuits, including the 3rd, 6th, 7th and District of Columbia circuits, while preliminary injunctions barring the government from enforcing the requirement have been granted in the 10th and 11th Circuits.

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