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Appeals court finds for-profit employers lack religious rights

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A 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has blocked efforts by a Pennsylvania cabinetry company to avoid having to comply with the new federal contraceptive benefits mandate.

The panel held in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. et al. vs. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al. that the First Amendment protects the “free exercise of religion” only for human beings, not for corporations.

Circuit Judge Robert Cowen, nominated to the court by President Reagan in 1987, wrote in the majority opinion that he and Thomas Vanaskie recognize the owners of Conestoga Wood believe that “birth control methods that terminate a fertilized embryo are an intrinsic evil.”

“We simply conclude that the law has long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself,” Cown wrote. “A holding to the contrary — that a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise — would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

Circuit Judge Kent Jordan, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006, wrote in a dissent that the majority’s ruling is “deeply disappointing.”

“The government takes us down a rabbit hole where religious rights are determined by the tax code, with nonprofit corporations able to express religious sentiments while for-profit corporations and their owners are told that business is business and faith is irrelevant,” Jordan said.

In June, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave another employer, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., permission to challenge the basic preventive services mandate in court.

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