Unlike other appeals courts that ruled on the issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in St. Louis believes that the mandatory birth control coverage in the Affordable Care Act tramples the religious rights of non-for-profit employers such as charities and hospitals
Now the lawsuit could be brought into the U.S. Supreme Courts’ attention, which is the only court that can settle the issue countrywide.
If the case goes to the High Court, we may see a replay of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in which Supreme Court justices ruled that for profit corporations are allowed to opt out from the contraceptive mandate if the provision infringes their owners’ religious freedom. Nevertheless, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby can only be applied to closely held for profit corporations, not to non-for-profit groups.
Under the ACA, female employees are granted the right to obtain contraceptives for free if they have a health plan. Initially, religious organizations including churches had the right to opt out if the mandate represented a substantial burden to their religious freedom.
In order to be able to opt out, religious non-for-profit groups need to notify their insurer that they are against birth control coverage, or they need to notify the government and provide the name of the insurer. From that moment on, birth control coverage is given to a third party to be taken care of.
But religious entities argue that the federal government didn’t provide them with enough options to dodge the mandate. They say that by signing the papers that pass responsibility to a third party, they are complicit to promoting birth control which Christian groups consider to be a sin.
The religious organizations argued that the ACA provision violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which states that governments can only burden a person or entity’s religious freedom when there’s a “compelling reason” and there is no other way of achieving government’s goals.
But other federal appeals courts ruled that the government didn’t burden the groups’ religious beliefs because they can easily opt out by expressing their wish to be exempted through a letter or a 2-page form.
Yet, in the case of two Missouri nonprofits – Heartland Christian College and CNS International Ministries – one appeals court had a different opinion.
U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Wollman wrote in the recent ruling that the lawsuit was not about whether the two organizations have misinterpreted the law, but whether they sincerely believe that signing accommodation papers would make them “morally and spiritually” complicit to birth control coverage.
Moreover, the fines the religious organizations who oppose the mandate will have to pay would be a significant burden, while the federal government didn’t prove that there was no other way of achieving its goal – providing women with free contraception, the judge argued.
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