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Federal appeals court refuses to exempt Catholic non-profits from contraception mandate

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] on Wednesday refused to grant an injunction [decision, PDF] that would have exempted Catholic non-profit groups from the contraception coverage requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) [materials; JURIST backgrounder]. The court noted in its decision that the groups that brought the suit, including the Michigan Catholic Conference [advocacy website] and other Michigan-based and Tennessee-based Catholic charities, are already eligible for exemption or accommodation from the contraception requirement. In order to qualify for an exemption, the groups are required to certify to the third-party company overseeing their insurance policies that they are denying contraception for religious reasons. The groups argued that the requirement to certify this was a violation of the religious freedom provisions in the US Constitution. The court stated: "[b]ecause these appellants may obtain the accommodation from the contraceptive-coverage requirement without providing, paying for, and/or facilitating access to contraception, the contraceptive-coverage requirement does not impose a substantial burden on these appellants' exercise of religion."

Last Wednesday the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma granted an injunction [JURIST report] that temporarily exempts more than 200 Catholic employers from providing insurance coverage for birth control [JURIST backgrounder] under the of PPACA. In March the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] on whether companies have a right to an exemption from the contraception provision of the PPACA for religious reasons. The plaintiffs in the combined cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius [SCOTUSblog backgrounders] contend they should be exempt from some of the coverage requirements of the PPACA's pregnancy-related services mandate, including certain "abortifacient" contraceptives. The corporations argue that the regulation will impose a "substantial burden" on the corporations' exercise of religion, which is protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) [text]. Alternatively, the corporations have asserted a claim that the mandate violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The Supreme Court must decide whether corporations can "exercise" religion under the RFRA. A ruling is expected this month.

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