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Federal appeals court upholds ACA's contraceptive mandate

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] on Thursday upheld [order, PDF] the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act [text] but enjoined the Secretary of Health and Human Services from the enforcing the mandate until the Supreme Court [official website] weighs in on some of the issues, currently pending in a similar case. While the ACA requires most health insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives as preventive care for women free of cost, it exempts Catholic dioceses and archdioceses from the mandate without exempting other affiliated organizations, including schools, charitable institutions and hospitals. These latter groups are required to submit a form to their third-party insurers stating their objections, after which the insurer will make the coverage available at no cost to the institution or the employee. In the current controversy, these affiliated organizations had claimed that this requirement was overly burdensome to their religious practice and that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. A three-judge panel of the court rejected [WP report] 2-1 the challenges to the mandate in a single opinion stating that "Congress included the contraceptive mandate in the ACA to improve women's health and public health generally. There is no evidence whatsoever that the mandate was enacted in an attempt to restrict religious exercise." The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 23 on the question.

Women's access to contraceptives through the ACA has led to much controversy, and courts in different jurisdictions have not ruled uniformly on this issue. Last September the Eighth Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that the ACA violates the religious rights [JURIST report] of employers by forcing them to help provide contraceptive coverage despite not being required to pay for it. Earlier the same month five judges on the Tenth Circuit issued an opinion [opinion, PDF] stating that the circuit's decision to uphold the contraceptive mandate of the ACA was "clearly and gravely wrong" and also predicting [JURIST report] that the birth control section of the mandate will fail in the Supreme Court. In July of last year the Ninth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that Washington state may force pharmacies to provide emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B. In May the Seventh Circuit ruled that the University of Notre Dame shall not, at the time being, be exempted from the federal government's birth control mandate. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that for profit businesses that are "closely held" (i.e., owned by a small number of individuals) may be exempted [JURIST report] from the birth-control mandate of the ACA if the owners had a religious objection to one or more mandated birth control devices or method.

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