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Federal Court: Employers Can Raise Moral Objections to Contraception

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The decision from a Bush-appointed federal court judge greatly expands the basis for employers to object to complying with the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit.

Employers can raise moral and religious objections to complying with the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued the ruling in March for Life v. Burwell, one of a myriad of cases filed by nonprofit groups who claim they should be exempt from the law’s contraception coverage requirements.

Unlike the other plaintiffs in cases challenging the benefit based on a religious objection to contraception, March for Life is a “nonreligious pro-life organization” whose sole purpose is to advocate against abortion rights. It based its case on a moral objection to contraception.

“If the purpose of the religious employer exemption is, as HHS states, to respect the anti-abortifacient tenets of an employment relationship, then it makes no rational sense—indeed, no sense whatsoever—to deny March [for] Life that same respect,” wrote Leon, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

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Monday’s decision is the first to allow employers to voice a moral objection to providing employee health insurance plans that cover contraception as a preventive service. The conservative legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom immediately applauded the ruling as setting a “positive precedent for other pro-life nonprofit organizations that may not be religious in nature, but oppose abortion on moral and ethical grounds.”

“Pro-life organizations should not be forced into betraying the very values they were established to advance,” ADF senior legal counsel Matt Bowman said in a statement following the ruling. “This is especially true of March for Life, which was founded to uphold life, not to assist in taking it.”

Advocates defending contraception access blasted the decision, noting the legal challenges brought against the benefit are no longer even based on religious grounds.

“For the past three years, ADF has been attempting to deprive women of contraceptive coverage by pressing for broader and broader religious exemptions,” said Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United. “Now it is arguing that non-religious objectors should also be exempt because religious exemptions improperly favor religion over non-religion. The name of that game is ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’—it illustrates that these contraception challenges are less about actual religious liberty and more about taking away contraceptive coverage from women.”

Monday’s decision will likely be appealed by the Obama administration to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has definitively ruled in favor of the birth control benefit and its accommodation twice in the Priests for Life case.

The Obama administration is undefeated defending the birth control benefit in federal appeals court.

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