Religious Groups Win Bid to Ignore Obamacare Coverage Rule

  • Birth control coverage ruling splits with other courts
  • Nonprofits say opt-out provision also violates their rights

Religious groups needn’t obey the Affordable Care Act mandate to provide workers with health insurance that covers contraception and can’t be forced to tell the government when they don’t, according to an appeal ruling that pushes the fight toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

Deciding two cases Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis agreed with nonprofit groups that providing birth-control coverage burdens their right to free exercise of religion. The court also rejected the opt-out requirement for religious nonprofits.

That exemption allowing the groups to avoid penalties as long as they notify their group health plan or the government merely coerces them “to act in a manner that they sincerely believe would make them complicit in a grave moral wrong as the price of avoiding a ruinous financial penalty,” the court said in its ruling.

The rulings depart from a July decision by the federal appeals court in Denver. It held that religious nonprofits must formally opt out of the contraception coverage mandate. Other courts have ruled along the same lines.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to take up the dispute in the term beginning next month. A conflict among appellate courts increases the chances the justices will accept the case. Opponents of the mandate, and the opt-out provision, have cited an earlier ruling by the high court that private, for-profit companies can refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to workers.

The cases before the St. Louis appeals court were brought by groups including CNS International Ministries Inc. and Heartland Christian College.

The court rejected the government’s assertion that it has a compelling interest in making sure women have equal access to health care and that the opt-out process in the Affordable Care Act was the least restrictive way to do that.

“The question here is not whether CNS and HCC have correctly interpreted the law, but whether they have a sincere religious belief that their participating in the accommodation process makes them morally and spiritually complicit,” the court ruled. “Their affirmative answer to that question is not for us to dispute.”

The cases are Sharpe Holdings Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 14-1507, and Dordt College v. Burwell, 14-2726, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (St. Louis).

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