By Julian Hattem - 11/01/13 12:17 PM EDT
A federal appeals court on Friday struck down the birth control mandate in ObamaCare, concluding the requirement trammels religious freedom.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — the second most influential bench in the land behind the Supreme Court — ruled 2-1 in favor of business owners who are fighting the requirement that they provide their employees with health insurance that covers birth control.
Requiring companies to cover their employees’ contraception, the court ruled, is unduly burdensome for business owners who oppose birth control on religious grounds, even if they are not purchasing the contraception directly.
“The burden on religious exercise does not occur at the point of contraceptive purchase; instead, it occurs when a company’s owners fill the basket of goods and services that constitute a healthcare plan,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote on behalf of the court.
Legal analysts expect the Supreme Court to ultimately pick up an appeal on the birth-control requirement and make a final decision on its constitutionality.
In the meantime, Republicans in Congress have pushed for a conscience clause that would allow employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage for moral or religious reasons.
The measure emerged most recently during negotiations to fund the federal government. Some House Republicans wanted to include the conscience clause in a legislative package ending the government shutdown.
The split ruling against the government on Friday was the latest in a string of court cases challenging the healthcare law’s mandate.
Friday’s ruling centered on two Catholic brothers, Francis and Philip Gilardi, who own a 400-person produce company based in Ohio.
The brothers oppose contraception as part of their religion and challenged the Affordable Care Act provision requiring them to provide insurance that covers their employees' birth control.
Refusing to abide by the letter of the law, they said, would result in a $14 million fine.
“They can either abide by the sacred tenets of their faith, pay a penalty of over $14 million, and cripple the companies they have spent a lifetime building, or they become complicit in a grave moral wrong,” Brown wrote.
The Obama administration said that the requirement is necessary to protect women’s right to decide whether and when to have children.
The judges were unconvinced, however, that forcing companies to cover contraception protected that right.
Brown wrote that “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.”
She added that denying coverage of contraception would not undermine the Affordable Care Act’s requirements that health insurance provide preventative care.
The Gilardis’ employees will still be covered for a series of counseling, screenings and tests, she noted.
“The provision of these services — even without the contraceptive mandate — by and large fulfills the statutory command for insurers to provide gender-specific preventive care,” she wrote. “At the very least, the statutory scheme will not go to pieces.”
The two other judges on the panel disagreed with parts of the ruling and said the rights of religious people do not extend to the companies they own. They also disputed that the Gilardis were unduly burdened by the coverage requirement.
Christian groups cheered the decision and said it makes it clear that the government cannot force Americans to violate their conscience.
“The D.C. court has affirmed that this principle applies to everyone, be they small business owners or nuns,” said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association, in a statement.
“Hopefully the Obama administration will finally stop bullying religious employers and repeal its oppressive mandate.”
Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the ObamaCare mandate to cover contraception. People who work for religiously affiliated institutions can get birth control directly from their insurance companies.
— This story was updated at 3:06 p.m.