FORT MYERS, Fla. (CN) - Christian colleges and retirement communities do not have to sponsor abortion services for employees if they can prove they are nonprofit religious organizations, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge John Steele's ruling last week addressed claims that the contraceptive mandate violates the Christian and Missionary Alliance Foundation's constitutional rights and those of affiliated retirement communities and universities.
The mandate, which is part of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, requires providers of group health insurance to cover preventive care for women, including certain contraception, abortion and sterilization services.
Churches and religious orders, which qualify as "religious employers," are exempt from the requirement. However, most religiously-affiliated groups such as schools and hospitals do not qualify for that exemption.
Nonprofit religious organizations that oppose contraceptive and abortion coverage based on religious objections may apply for an "accommodation," which requires third-party administrators or insurers to cover those services in full for their employees.
But the Christian and Missionary Alliance entities claimed their religious beliefs prevented them from complying with the mandate and from participating in the accommodation process.
They asked the court to enjoin the enforcement of the mandate to their health plans and to stop the government from fining them for non-compliance.
Steele agreed that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the law's enforcement would violate religious freedom rights.
Their "refusal to provide insurance coverage for those contraceptives that may harm or kill a fertilized egg, or to transfer authority to a third party to do the same" constitutes a protected exercise of religion, Steele wrote.
Requiring the schools and retirement communities to provide coverage for services prohibited by their sincerely held religious beliefs and threatening to fine them for non-compliance burdens their religious exercise, the Feb. 3 ruling states.
However, the plaintiffs may opt-out by certifying that they qualify for the accommodation. That procedure does not invade their privacy and is not a substantial burden on their exercise of religion, Steele said.
The judge went on to say the plaintiffs need not identify the insurers that would cover the services for their employees, which would get them entangled in the process of providing coverage for services prohibited by their beliefs. Once the government receives notice of the plaintiffs' eligibility for the exception, it may use that information to ensure compliance with the law, the ruling states.
There may be less restrictive means to achieve the government's compelling interest in safeguarding public health and women's access to health care, the judge said. The self-certification requirement in reasonable, but identifying insurers is not, according to the opinion.
And although an injunction may make enforcing the law more difficult, protecting First Amendment rights outweighs that possible harm, the court concluded.
The injunction does not stop the government from taking reasonable steps to implement the contraceptive mandate and does not bind non-party insurers, the opinion adds.
"Last week's ruling reaffirms the government's responsibility to never force any religious ministry to violate the very faith that motivates that ministry," Jeremy Dys, an attorney who represents the plaintiff, said in an emailed statement. "Our clients are grateful for this partial relief and will continue to press the merits of the case to receive the same exemption from this government mandate to provide their ministry employees with drugs that destroy a developing human life that the denomination to which they are associated already has."
Dys said his clients only take issue with contraceptives that may affect an existing pregnancy.