By Bob Allen
The Obama administration improved to 7-0 in the number of federal appeals courts defending its religious accommodation to require coverage of contraceptives in employer health care plans with an Aug. 7 decision by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that four Roman Catholic nonprofits in New York must allow employees access to birth control, even though using it is against church teaching. The decision reversed a ruling by a lower court that completing a one-page form allowing faith-based nonprofits to opt out for religious reasons posed a “substantial” burden on their religious freedom.
So far none of the seven appellate courts hearing challenges to Obamacare has bought the argument raised by plaintiffs — including GuideStone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention — that the act of submitting the form makes them complicit in immorality because it shifts responsibility for coverage to a third-party provider.
Like the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 10th circuits and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals before it, the 2nd Circuit said submitting the form “relieves, rather than imposes, any substantial burden” on religious exercise and “thus does not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
While Roman Catholic doctrine rejects all forms of birth control with the exception of “natural” family planning based on the woman’s menstrual cycle, the lawsuits brought by evangelical groups object only to “emergency” or “morning after” birth control pills and/or intrauterine devices that they believe end a human life that begins at the moment of conception.
At a July 27-28 meeting of the GuideStone Financial Resources board of trustees, President O.S. Hawkins asked trustees to pray for the agency’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the contraceptive mandate. While churches and their integrated auxiliaries, like GuideStone, are exempt from the mandate as religious employers, Hawkins said, some ministries the agency serves could face stiff penalties under rules implementing the Affordable Care Act.
“We want our employers to know, regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court, we’ll have a solution for all of the employers we serve,” Hawkins said in comments quoted by a news release.