President Barack Obama's healthcare law suffered a setback on Thursday when an appeals court ruled that it violates the rights of employers belonging to religious organisations by forcing them to help provide contraceptive coverage to their employees even though they are not compelled to pay for it.
Diverging from the decisions taken by other appeals courts on the issue, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Missouri, upheld orders by two lower courts preventing the federal government from enforcing the contraceptive provisions of the Obama administration's Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) on religiously affiliated employers.
The contradictory decisions taken by appeals courts is expected to prompt the US Supreme Court to intervene and decide on the issue once and for all when it resumes session next month.
Under Obamacare, employers are required to provide insurance to employees including getting access to contraceptives, sterilisation and other preventive care for women.
Religious non-profit organisations have the choice to opt out of paying for the contraceptive coverage and this will be shouldered by the insurer at no extra cost to the employer.
Employers who fail to follow the opt-out process will be fined.
"In light of CNS and HCC's sincerely held religious beliefs, we conclude that compelling their participation in the accommodation process by threat of severe monetary penalty is a substantial burden on their exercise of religion," the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, referring to the CNS International Ministries and Heartland Christian College in Missouri.
Dordt College and Cornerstone University in Iowa also filed a case before the appeals court and won.
CNS and HCC, for instance, object to emergency contraceptives, including Plan B from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, which they believe are equivalent to abortion.
The employers say the opt-out provision violates a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"CNS and HCC contend that the government is coercing them to violate their religious beliefs by threatening to impose severe monetary penalties unless they either directly provide coverage for objectionable contraceptives through their group health plans or indirectly provide, trigger, and facilitate that objectionable coverage through the Form 700/HHS Notice accommodation process," the court ruling said.
Circuit Judge Roger Wollman, who wrote Thursday's decisions, said the court must defer to the employers' "sincere religious belief that their participation in the accommodation process makes them morally and spiritually complicit in providing abortifacient coverage."