A federal judge on Monday undermined the Obama administration’s position that only “religious organizations” can be exempted from Obamacare’s requirement that insurance policies provide contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs.
In a case brought by the nonprofit March for Life, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that those who oppose abortion on the basis of faith or moral beliefs should be exempt.
After an uproar, Washington backed down from the contraceptive mandate, exempting religious organizations. But it has fought case after case to impose that requirement on everyone else.
The administration has lost several times, including the U.S. Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case.
In the newest ruling, Leon found the mandate “violates the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment and must be struck down as unconstitutional.”
Matt Bowman, a senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented March for Life, said the ruling opens the possibility that a range of additional individuals and organizations qualify for an exemption.
The judge noted the way the Obama administration handled the exemption for religious organizations.
“What HHS claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of life,” he wrote. “HHS may be correct that this objection [to abortion] is common among religiously affiliated employers. Where HHS has erred, however, is in assuming that this trait is unique to such organizations.
“It is not,” he wrote.
For example, “anti-abortion advocacy is March for Life’s sole and central tenet. ”
“It is an entity founded exclusively on pro-life principles, and its governing ethos – indeed its corporate dogma – is staunchly anti-abortifacient,” Bowman said.
“To say that its employees oppose contraceptives understates the vehemence of their objection,” he said. “According to plaintiffs, March for Life’s employees not only reject abortifacients in principle, but they ‘don’t want them, don’t want coverage for them, and will not use’ them in practice.”
He argued that March for Life and exempted religious organizations “are not just ‘similarly situated,’ they are identically situated.”
“Their employees share, as a function of their belief system, the ‘unique’ tenets of an employment relationship that HHS seeks to protect. It is difficult to imagine a more textbook example of the trait HHS purports to accommodate.”
The judge said that not exempting March for Life because it is “not religious” is “nothing short of regulatory favoritism.”
The judge said that if the purpose of the religious employer exemption is, as HHS states, “to respect the anti-abortifacient tenets of an employment relationship, then it makes no rational sense – indeed, no sense whatsoever – to deny March [for] Life that same respect.”
“The order is the first one to be granted in favor of an organization opposed to the mandate for pro-life reasons based on moral convictions instead of religion,” ADF said in its report on the ruling.
March for Life, which holds its well-known, pro-life march each year in Washington, asked for the injunction in July 2014.
Forced to ‘betray values’
The Obamacare mandate was written to force employers, regardless of their moral convictions, to provide insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception under threat of heavy financial penalties through the IRS.
“Pro-life organizations should not be forced into betraying the very values they were established to advance,” said Bowman.
“This is especially true of March for Life, which was founded to uphold life, not to assist in taking it. The government has no right to demand that organizations provide health insurance plan options that explicitly contradict their mission.”
March for Life was organized after the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Its very existence is based on its opposition to abortion, and its moral beliefs “forbid it from furthering abortion through health insurance coverage it offers to its employees,” ADF argued.
March for Life’s beliefs “are based solely on non-religious ethics and science,” ADF said, even though some employees also claimed faith-based reasons.
“Americans should not be forced to choose between following their deepest convictions and submitting to unlawful and unnecessary government mandates,” added ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “We hope other courts that consider similar cases will issue their own orders upholding the right of pro-life organizations to be free from this type of government coercion.”
ADF and other attorneys are litigating a number of other cases also focusing on the abortion-pill mandate.
Along with Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College of Illinois and others have won rulings.