A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that President Barack Obama’s health care law unjustly burdens religiously affiliated employers by forcing them to help provide insurance coverage for certain medical measures, even though they can opt out of directly paying for it.
“When the government imposes a direct monetary penalty to coerce conduct that violates religious belief, ‘[t]here has never been a question‘that the government’ imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion,’” the opinion stated.
The ruling by a three-judge 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in St. Louis upheld lower court decisions that sided with the plaintiffs, including three Christian colleges in Missouri, Michigan and Iowa.
The 25-page opinion disagrees with all other federal appellate courts, which have found in the U.S. government’s favor.
As religiously affiliated entities, those colleges victorious with Thursday’s ruling do not have to pay directly for their workers’ use of the measures. Instead, they can seek an accommodation that requires their insurance providers to pay for them. However, the groups say the scheme still makes them complicit and burdens them with possible fines for noncompliance.
Circuit Judge Roger Wollman, writing the ruling on the panel’s behalf, wrote that the mandate and accommodation process of the Affordable Care Act substantially burdens the plaintiffs’ exercise of religion.
“In America, faith-based colleges and universities should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis,” said Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, who argued before the 8th Circuit in December of last year. “If the administration can punish Christian organizations simply because they want to abide by their faith, there is no limit to what other freedoms it can take away.”
The Justice Department has called the lawsuits meritless and an attempt to prevent employees from obtaining coverage. The White House called the rulings disappointing.
“As all of the other seven U.S. courts of appeals to address this issue have held, the…accommodation process strikes the proper balance between ensuring women have equal access to health care and protecting religious beliefs,” that statement read.
The Obama administration did not indicate whether it would appeal, including asking the full 8th Circuit to consider the matter.
Lawsuits over the government’s mandate have been part of the lengthy political and legal battle over the health-care law Obama signed in 2010, with roughly 100 lawsuits from businesses and religiously affiliated colleges, hospitals and other not-for-profit organizations challenging this requirement.
Federal appeals courts largely have ruled that informing the government of a religious objection does not interfere with the groups’ religious rights. Several appeals already are pending at the Supreme Court.
In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of family-controlled businesses with a religious objection to paying for some or all of the approved measures. Their employees still could receive them, but through an arrangement with the businesses’ insurers or third-party insurance administrators. The government covers the cost in those circumstances.