A U.S. appeals court ruled Friday against Catholic organizations with objections to the Obama administration’s latest opt-out rules for mandated contraceptive and sterilization health insurance coverage. “To ask a group of priests to cooperate in the government’s plan to expand access to birth control and abortion-inducing drugs is about as contrary to religious freedom as you can get,” Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services, said Nov. 14. He said that if the government is sincere in providing an opt-out mechanism, “it is reasonable for us to insist that we be given a way to opt out that does not itself violate our moral conscience. And whether it violates our conscience is for us to say, not the government.” Fr. Pavone’s comments came in reaction to a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Cornelia Pillard, writing for a three-judge panel, said the Obama administration’s revised rules “do not impose a substantial burden” on the plaintiffs, who include the Archdiocese of Washington, the Catholic University of America, Thomas Aquinas College, and Priests for Life. Pillard said that the opt-out mechanism is “minimal” paperwork. “Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraception services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms,” she said. The mandated coverage includes sterilization procedures and contraceptives, including some drugs with abortifacient properties. Catholic ethics reject the use of such drugs and procedures, as well as moral complicity in providing them. The changes to the mandate now require employers to notify the federal government of their objection to the mandate; this notification then prompts the government to arrange the coverage that the employers find objectionable. Previously, objecting employers were required to authorize an insurer or third-party administrator to provide the objectionable products and procedures. Some objectors say that the revised arrangement still requires employers to participate in facilitating access to products and procedures that violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.
Michael McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College, said, “We disagree with the opinion of the D.C. Court of Appeals in our challenge to the HHS contraceptive mandate, and we will be appealing it to the United States Supreme Court. We look forward to vindicating our religious liberty rights there.” Priests for Life said that the court ruling wrongly claimed that the plaintiffs object to the government’s “independent actions in mandating contraceptive coverage” rather than to action that the government requires of them. “What we object to are the actions the government is asking us to take,” Priests for Life explained. “We refuse to take actions that are necessary to help the government ‘fill the gap’ to provide drugs that kill babies and harm women.” A different federal court’s ruling has sided with objectors to the new rules. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on Oct. 28 granted Ave Maria University preliminary protection from the revised federal mandate. It ruled that the revised exemption does not adequately protect religious employers with conscientious objections. The Obama administration modified its mandate after a June Supreme Court ruling held that the mandate violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act by forcing the owners of “closely-held” for-profit employers to go against their religious beliefs.