Religious freedom advocates are voicing hope as the Obama administration drops its appeal in three lawsuits involving for-profit companies that object to the federal contraception mandate. The Department of Justice has dropped its appeals in The Seneca Hardwood Lumber Company v. Burwell, Armstrong v. Burwell, and Briscoe v. Burwell, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing numerous individuals and organizations that have sued over the mandate. “The administration was right to abandon its fight against the family businesses involved in these particular cases in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in June,” said Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, in a Sept. 4 statement. “In a free and diverse society, we respect the freedom to live out our convictions. For these families, that means not being forced to participate in distributing abortion drugs and devices.” In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the mandate as it was applied to two “closely held” for-profit businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Services, saying that the owners of the companies were protected against the mandate by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court said that the government had not shown that the mandate was the least restrictive means of achieving its goal of providing free contraceptives to employees. In response, the Obama administration announced a proposed change to the mandate Aug. 22, suggesting that “closely-held” for-profit companies that object to providing the coverage would be able to take part in an “accommodation” originally offered to non-profits. This change will not be finalized until comments from the general public have been collected. Issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the federal mandate has been a subject of controversy for years because it requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions. Objections to the mandate have resulted in more than 300 lawsuits from individuals and groups protesting the regulation’s imposition on their religious beliefs. The opposition to the regulation has led the administration to change it numerous times in recent years. The mandate includes a narrow exemption for houses of worship and their affiliates. Other non-profit religious groups that objected to the regulation were provided an “accommodation” under which they could sign forms authorizing their insurer or a third-party administrator to pay for the products instead. The administration in August announced an “interim final rule” modifying the accommodation for non-profit groups. The rule states that instead of contacting their insurance companies directly, the groups can notify the federal government of their objections to the mandate, and the government will then contact their insurer or a third-party administrator, designating them to assume the costs of the contraception coverage deemed immoral by the employer. Many religious groups objected to the arrangement, calling it an “accounting gimmick” and saying that it still required that they violate their religious beliefs by authorizing the provision of products and procedures they found immoral. Under administration proposals, the accommodation would be extended to closely-held for-profit companies with objections to the mandate. In the meantime, abandoning its appeals in several cases means that those companies will remain protected by initial court orders while the lawsuits proceed. Lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom saw the move as hopeful. “All Americans should oppose unjust laws that force people — under threat of punishment by the IRS — to give up their freedom to live and work according to their beliefs,” stated Bowman.
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