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Contraception Objectors Lose Health Care Appeal

(CN) - An Obamacare form that lets Catholic organizations opt out of providing contraceptive coverage does not "trigger" the disputed coverage, the 3rd Circuit ruled.

The ruling Wednesday comes in a consolidated appeal by various organizations that oppose the so-called contraceptive mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Geneva College, a Christian liberal arts college set in Beaver Falls, Pa., filed challenges as did Cranberry, Pa.-based Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co. and a sawmill called WLH Enterprises.

Other plaintiffs include several priests, the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa., and some affiliated nonprofits or charities.

Geneva believes that it would be sinful and immoral for it to intentionally facilitate access to two emergency contraceptives, Plan B and Ella, or to intrauterine devices that they say cause abortion.

The other plaintiffs add that the Catholic faith prohibits providing insurance coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, and related reproductive educational and counseling services.

Months before Geneva filed suit, President Barack Obama had promised that his administration would consider letting some insurers provide the disputed services directly to women who seek them, "with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception."

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti granted the lumber-related plaintiffs an injunction in April 2013, but found Geneva's claims unripe based in part on the government's claim that the final rules implementing the mandate would never be enforced against entities like the college.

After Conti agreed to reconsider the next month, she awarded Geneva a preliminary injunction June 18, finding that the regulations gave it only two choices: to either provide the contested coverage or drop its health insurance, both repugnant to its religious beliefs.

The court then awarded Geneva a second preliminary injunction - and the Persico and Zubik plaintiffs a permanent one - in December, holding that having to sign a form that facilitates the provision of contraceptives and counseling, contradicts their religious tenets.

On appeal, Uncle Same told the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit that submitting the form is not in itself burdensome and does not give rise to coverage, but that insurance issuers and third-party administrators must provide contraceptive coverage if employers refuse to provide it themselves.

The federal appeals court reversed the lower court's rulings in the consolidated matter Wednesday.

"We cannot agree that the submission of the self-certification form has the effect the appellees claim," Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote for the three-judge panel.

Based on the 7th Circuit's 2014 decision in University of Notre Dame v. Sebelius, "this is not a situation where the self-certification form enables the provision of the very contraceptive services that the appellees find sinful," this week's precedential ruling states.

"Rather, '[f]ederal law, not the religious organization's signing and mailing the form, requires health-care insurers, along with third-party administrators of self-insured plans, to cover contraceptive services,'" Rendell added.

The ruling summarizes the "real objection" of Geneva and the others as a challenge "to what happens after the form is provided - that is, to the actions of the insurance issuers and the third-party administrators, required by law, once the appellees give notice of their objection."

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act "does not grant [the appellees] a religious veto against plan providers' compliance with those regulations, nor the right to enlist the government to effectuate such a religious veto against legally required conduct of third parties,'" Rendell wrote, citing the D.C. Circuit's 2014 ruling in Priests for Life v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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