Appeals court strikes down Obamacare birth control mandate

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A federal circuit court struck down the the Obamacare birth-control mandate Friday, ruling that the requirement places a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of individual employers.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the mandate infringes on the religious freedom of individual business owners, in this case Francis and Philip Gilardi, the Catholics who own Freshway Foods and Fresh Unlimited. The court did not, however, extend the same rights to companies themselves.

The Affordable Care Act requires that employers offer health insurance that covers contraception or face penalties. Catholics object to the mandate on religious grounds.

This mandate, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in the court’s decision, “trammels the right of free exercise” of religion, as protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But the court ruled that companies themselves cannot “exercise” religion on their own.

The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), who argued the case on behalf of the Gilardi brothers, said in a statement that they would appeal the circuit court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“While this is a victory for the individual plaintiffs,” said Francis J. Manion, ACLJ’s senior counsel and attorney that argued the case, “the appeals court rejected a critical arguments that the rights of the companies be protected as well.”

The Gilardi brothers’ Ohio-based produce company employs 400 people. Under the Obama administration’s rules, the brothers would pay a $14 million penalty for declining to provide the contraception coverage.

The Obama administration argues that the mandate is necessary to protect women’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has maintained that the rule administered by her department is legally sound.

“We can work out a strategy where [Catholics] can abide by their religious freedom and the women employed in those institutions will have contraception,” Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee when questioned on the mandate’s legality in 2012.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Obama administration, released a statement opposing the appeals court’s decision.

“Employers are using religion as an excuse to discriminate by denying employees coverage for contraception,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control, based on our own beliefs.”

The court disagreed that the right to choose whether to use birth control required employers to pay for it. “It is clear the government has failed to demonstrate how such a right — whether described as noninterference, privacy, or autonomy — can extend to the compelled subsidization of a woman’s procreative practices.”

The ACLJ said it would file a petition next week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

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