Catholics win court battle against Obamacare contraception rule

Published 30 April 2014  |  
(AP)

An American Catholic student group has won a court exemption from rules that would have forced them to provide contraception as part of their employee health insurance.

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) will not be required to provide medications that they disagree with the use of after last week's ruling from the US District Court for the District of Colorado.

Under the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare, all companies over a certain size are required to provide certain levels of health insurance provision to their employees.

While religious institutions like churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are exempt from this rule, businesses with a religious ethos are not provided that same protection.

This has given rise to a number of businesses with religious connections attempting to sue the government because of the legal requirement to pay for medications, such as various forms of the morning after pill, which they find morally objectionable.

FOCUS argued that this policy violated the first and fifth amendment of the US constitution, which provides for religious freedom and protection from "abuse of government authority" respectively.

They also cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which permits religious exemptions to laws for the general population under special circumstances.

Michael J Norton, a lawyer with the group Alliance Defending Freedom, who is representing FOCUS, said in Boston's Catholic newspaper The Pilot: "Faith-based organisations should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis.

"If the administration can punish Christian ministries simply because they want to abide by their faith, there is no limit to what other freedoms it can take away.

"The court was right to block enforcement of this unconstitutional mandate against FOCUS."

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, argue that there is a way around the problem.

Using what is called 'Third Party Coverage', FOCUS would have needed to submit a form to the health insurance provider, who would then provide the contraceptive cover directly. Rather than requiring FOCUS to pay for it, the insurance provider would be refunded by the government.

However, FOCUS took the view that this was still unacceptable because it amounted to facilitating the distribution of contraceptives they find morally reprehensible, even if they are not paying for them.

The American Civil Liberties Union has argued, in a brief submitted to this case, that the contraception provision requirement in Obamacare is necessary to ensure that women have "full control of their reproductive lives and to decide whether and when to have children".

However there are protections in place to ensure that the exemption policy is not used in an arbitrary fashion. In order to qualify for consideration of an exemption to the HHS rules about health insurance provision, any faith invoked must be linked to a religion established before 1950.

This latest judgement will remain in effect until the US Supreme Court hears the cases of the large chain retailer Hobby Lobby and the small family business Conestoga Wood Specialities, both of whom are suing the HHS over the same rules. A ruling in the cases is expected by the end of summer.

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