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Court Rules Against Catholic Health Care System

HHS mandate fightThe U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against four Catholic institutions affiliated with the Archdiocese of New York, saying that being required to sign an opt-out form to avoid providing contraceptive coverage to their employees does not constitute a substantial burden on the exercise of their religion.

The New York Times is reporting on the decision in Catholic Health Care System v. Burwell that marks the sixth time a Circuit court has upheld the Obama Administration’s controversial birth control mandate which forces employers to provide health insurance for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures. The Obama Administration provided an “accommodation” to their conscientious objections which requires them to fill out a form or write a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in order to opt out of the coverage. A third party then steps in to arrange the coverage for employees.

The organizations involved in the case include Catholic Health Care System, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, Cardinal Spellman High School and Monsignor Farrell High School.

The four religious entities argued that filing the opt-out form or providing a letter to the HHS is a substantial burden because it makes them complicit in bringing about the coverage which is forbidden by their religion. Even though a third party actually arranges for the coverage once the opt-out is received, religious institutions say their participation in filling out the forms for sending letter is essential to the provision of the coverage.

The court disagreed. “When third parties step in and provide contraceptive coverage after Plaintiffs opt out, they do so not because Plaintiffs have opted out, but rather because federal law requires or incentivizes them to provide such coverage. The accommodation functions not as a ‘trigger,’ but rather as a means of identifying and exempting those employers with religious objections. Once Plaintiffs indicate their desire to have no involvement in the provision of contraceptive coverage, the government steps in and acts to ensure contraceptive coverage without any participation by Plaintiffs. Thus, Plaintiffs’ decision to opt out is not the cause of the ultimate contraceptive coverage; rather this coverage happens in spite of them....”

The court went on to clarify that “just because Plaintiffs feel complicit in these third party actions does not mean that the regulations impose a ‘burden’ on their religious practice, much less a burden that is ‘substantial” under RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, said its lawyers were reviewing the decision.

Five appeals court decisions in similar cases have been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which is not expected to announce any new cases accepted for its fall term until shortly before the opening date of October 5.

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