(Bloomberg) — Religious groups needn’t comply with a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires employers to provide workers with health insurance that covers contraception, and those groups can’t be forced to tell the government when they don’t, a federal appeals court said.
Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius established the mandate when she approved the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) preventive services package provision. The provision requires non-grandfathered major medical policies to cover the preventive services, including vaccinations and cancer screenings, without imposing deductibles, co-payments or cost-sharing requirements on the patients.
Ruling Thursday in two cases, a three-judge panel at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with groups that said the birth-control requirement burdens their right to free exercise of religion. The court also rejected a provision in HHS regulations that says religious nonprofits won’t be penalized as long as they notify their group health plan or the government of their decision to opt out of providing birth-control coverage for employees.
The exemption allowing the groups to avoid penalties as long as they notify their group health plan or the government coerces them “to act in a manner that they sincerely believe would make them complicit in a grave moral wrong as the price of avoiding a ruinous financial penalty,” the court said in its ruling.
The rulings depart from a decision issued in July by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 10th Circuit held that religious nonprofits must formally opt out of the contraception coverage mandate. Other courts have ruled along the same lines.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to take up the dispute in the term beginning next month. A conflict among appellate courts increases the chances the justices will accept the case. Opponents of the mandate, and the opt-out provision, have cited an earlier ruling by the high court holding that private, for-profit companies can refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to workers.
The cases are Sharpe Holdings Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Case Number 14-1507, and Dordt College v. Burwell, Case Number 14-2726, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (St. Louis).
—With assistance from Greg Stohr in Washington.