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Federal Appeals Courts Unanimous in Support of Obamacare’s Birth Control Accommodation

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Yet another federal appeals court ruled that completing paperwork to qualify for a religious accommodation to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act did not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A federal appeals court on Friday reaffirmed a ruling that the accommodation process to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) does not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The decision came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a challenge brought by six Catholic groups in Tennessee and Michigan, which argued the process of completing the paperwork to receive the accommodation unduly burdened their religious rights.

This is the second time the Sixth Circuit has considered the request from these organizations to exempt them from the process of completing the the government’s form that self-certifies them as religious employers and makes them eligible for an accommodation to providing contraception coverage in their employee health insurance plans.

The ACA requires some employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception as part of a package of preventive care services provided to employees at no additional cost or co-pay. President Obama’s health law includes an exemption for churches and other houses of worship. It also contains an accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofits, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, which are not churches but maintain a religious objection to providing plans with contraception coverage.

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That process allows the objecting employers to complete a form, or otherwise notify the government in writing, of their religious objection. Completion of the form triggers a process whereby the insurance company contracts directly with people who want contraception coverage at no additional cost.

The plaintiffs in Michigan Catholic Conference argued that completing the form to qualify for the exemption violates RFRA because the act of completing the form “triggers” or “facilitates” the ability of their employees to get contraceptive coverage elsewhere, which the plaintiffs claim makes them “complicit” in the sin of facilitating contraception.

But a three-judge panel from the Sixth Circuit rejected these arguments and unanimously affirmed its earlier ruling that completing the paperwork is not a RFRA violation.

That previous ruling was issued before the Supreme Court decided the Hobby Lobby case, which ruled that some secular, for-profit businesses can take advantage of the religious accommodation to the birth control benefit available to nonprofits like the plaintiffs in Michigan Catholic Conference.

“The Courts of Appeals have unanimously concluded that filling out a form requesting an exemption from the contraception regulations does not substantially burden the free exercise of religion,” Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Rewire. “The message from the Courts of Appeals is, ‘Read my lips: no new challenges.’ Perhaps one day the challengers will get the message.”

Meanwhile, the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued another ruling in the nonprofit contraception challenges, granting a request by the Little Sisters of the Poor to put on hold its earlier decision that the accommodation process does not burden the organization’s religious rights while the Little Sisters asks the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.

The earliest the Roberts Court would take up a challenge to the accommodation process is this fall, when the Court is back in session.

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