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'Contraceptive mandate' ruling favors anti-abortion group


A court ruling that a nonreligious anti-abortion group is exempt from the so-called contraceptive mandate in the health care reform law adds a new layer of complexity to disputes over the controversial rule.

The ruling Tuesday by Judge Richard Leon in federal court in Washington could further undermine the reform law's coverage requirements if ultimately upheld.

March for Life, an anti-abortion nonprofit group, sued the federal government last year seeking an exemption from the mandate, which was included in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Washington-based group, which considers itself secular, argued that its moral objections to offering employees health benefits that include coverage for contraceptive prescriptions should qualify it for the same exemptions afforded to religious nonprofits run by churches and their direct holdings.

In a 29-page ruling, believed to be the first of its kind, Judge Leon granted March for Life's petition to prohibit the U.S. Health and Human Services Department from enforcing the coverage mandate against the organization.

“March for Life is an avowedly pro-life organization whose employees share in, and advocate for, a particular moral philosophy,” Judge Leon wrote in his ruling.

“HHS has chosen, however, to accommodate this moral philosophy only when it is overtly tied to religious values,” Judge Leon wrote.

By singling out the specific trait of a religious affiliation in partially or wholly exempting employers from the requirement, HHS' enforcement of the coverage mandate on nonaffiliated charities that oppose the use of contraceptives “violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment and must be struck down as unconstitutional,” he wrote.

HHS has not yet indicated if it will appeal the verdict, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are delighted that the court has ruled in our favor on this crucially important case,” March for Life President Jeanne Mancini said in a statement released Tuesday. “The government should not be allowed to force organizations like the March for Life to have health insurance with drugs and devices that can cause an abortion.”

Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Scottsdale, Arizona-based conservative law group Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement that secular organizations that oppose abortion “should not be forced into betraying the very values they were established to advance.”

It remains to be seen whether March for Life's broad exemption from the contraceptive coverage rule — as well as the legal theory supporting it — will remain in place.

Thus far, similar exemptions for nonprofit groups that do have established religious ties but are not owned by churches have been rejected in seven appeals court circuits, with the remaining six circuits having not yet opined on the issue.

However, U.S. Supreme Court justices have individually issued emergency stays for plaintiff organizations — including religious charities, universities and private schools — pending the final outcome of the cases, some of which could be decided by the full bench of the high court as early as the end of the year.

The extent to which a final verdict in March for Life's favor would weaken the enforceability of other coverage rules under the ACA will depend on the scope of that ruling, and how many employers chose to take advantage of it.

“I'm not hearing about very many employers looking for ways to get out from having to comply with specific coverage rules under the reform law,” said Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health in Washington. “What they're focused on right now is whether they're even going to continue to voluntarily offer benefits, given the effects they're facing under the 'Cadillac tax' that's coming in two years.”

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