Catholic Nuns Lose Battle Over Obamacare Forms

     (CN) – The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not infringe on Catholic nuns’ free exercise of religion by requiring them to file a form to opt-out of employee contraceptive coverage, the 10th Circuit ruled.
     The Denver- and Baltimore-based chapters of Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, alongside the New Mexico-based Christian Brothers Service, challenged a provision of the Act that requires employers to include contraceptive services in group health plans they provide to workers.
     In addition to exempting churches and other religious employers from the mandate, the Obama administration provided an accommodation for nonprofit religious organizations.
     The religious orders in this suit complained, however, that even filing the required form to claim that exemption violates their religious objections to providing contraceptive services.
     A divided 10th Circuit panel rejected this argument on Tuesday.
     “Although we recognize and respect the sincerity of plaintiffs’ beliefs and arguments, we conclude the accommodation scheme relieves plaintiffs of their obligations under the mandate and does not substantially burden their religious exercise under RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] or infringe upon their First Amendment rights,” U.S. Circuit Judge Scott Matheson Jr. said, writing for the panel’s majority.
     Requiring religious objectors to complete a simple administrative task does not substantially burden their religious freedom, the court ruled.
     The government has “made opting out of the mandate at least as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax form, or registering to vote – in other words, a routine, brief administrative task,” Matheson wrote.
     The 98-page opinion, joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Monroe McKay, also rejected the argument that the order’s religious practice was burdened because, under the ACA, health insurance providers must provide contraception to plan participants even if their employer opts out of paying for the services.
     “Religious exercise is not substantially burdened merely because the government spends its money or arranges its own affairs in ways that plaintiffs find objectionable,” Matheson wrote. “RFRA does not prevent the Government from reassigning obligations after an objector opts out simply because the objector strongly opposes the ultimate goal of the generally applicable law.”
     Contrary to the nuns’ contentions, the judge said opting out eliminates their complicity in providing contraceptive coverage, as they play no part in “the government’s subsequent efforts to deliver contraceptive coverage in their stead.”
     The Seventh Circuit came to the same conclusion last week in a challenge brought by Wheaton College, a private evangelical school.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Baldock dissented, finding a distinction between insured and self-insured plaintiffs.
     “The Court properly rejects the insured plaintiffs’ RFRA claim, as their action or inaction will not affect whether their plan beneficiaries receive objected-to coverage,” Baldock wrote. “But the self-insured plaintiffs’ inaction will prevent their plan beneficiaries from receiving the coverage. If their beneficiaries receive this coverage, it is only because the self-insured plaintiffs, by opting out, caused that effect. Thus, the self-insured plaintiffs have shown how their opting out would cause the provision and receipt of objected-to coverage and established a substantial burden on their religious exercise.” (Emphasis in original.)
     Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, a leader of the Little Sisters of the Poor, told The New York Times she was disappointed with the court’s decision.
     “For over 175 years, we have served the neediest in society with love and dignity. All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion.”

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