WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a path devised by the Obama administration that allows religious nonprofit groups to avoid paying for contraception under the president’s health care law.
In a 3-0 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a challenge by the groups, which claimed that the accommodation still imposes a substantial burden on their expression of religion.
The Affordable Care Act requires that women covered by group health plans be able to acquire Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods at no additional cost. In response to an outcry from religious groups, the government devised the accommodation, but the groups continued to oppose the regulations.
To be eligible for the accommodation, a religious organization must certify to its insurance company that it opposes coverage for contraceptives and that it operates as a nonprofit religious organization.
The religious groups argued that the notice to insurance companies requesting the accommodation is a trigger that will result in the government hijacking their health plans and using them as conduits for providing contraceptive coverage to their employees and students.
The appeals court said that all the religious groups must do to opt out is to “express what they believe and seek what they want” via a letter or two-page form.
“That bit of paperwork is more straight-forward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations’ compliance with law in the modern administrative state,” wrote appeals judge Cornelia Pillard, who was nominated by President Barack Obama.
“Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms,” she added.
The contraceptive coverage requirement was adopted to “promote women’s equal access to health care appropriate to their needs,” the ruling stated. That need in turn “serves women’s health, the health of children, and women’s equal enjoyment of their right to personal autonomy without unwanted pregnancy.”
Among the organizations challenging the accommodation are the religious group Priests For Life and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
“The court is wrong, and we will not obey the mandate,” said Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests For Life.
The other judges in the case were Judith Rogers, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, and Robert Wilkins, an Obama appointee.
Friday’s decision follows the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that closely-held companies with religious objections can avoid the contraceptive requirement in Obama’s health care law. The justices left in place lower court rulings in favor of businesses that object to covering all methods of government-approved contraception.
The Hobby Lobby ruling marked the first time the high court has declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.