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Appellate Court Provides Victory in Religious Challenge to HHS Mandate

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has provided a victory for religious institutions challenging the Affordable Care Act. In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling, which upheld the government’s right to mandate healthcare procedures that are contrary to the moral teachings of a faith group. Bishop Burbidge welcomed the ruling stating, “This decision provides not only for the truly free exercise of our religious liberty, but it also most importantly respects the mission of the Church in our country, to serve all of God’s people, especially those most in need, regardless of their creed.”

A Catholic News Service story points out that while a narrow exemption is provided in the mandate, it only applies to those religious entities which primarily employ and serve the people of their own faith. For the Catholic Church this exemption is problematic, since the Church does not limit its hiring only to Catholics in its parishes, hospitals and charities, which employ and serve all people.

While the December 18th ruling does not overturn the controversial mandate itself, the ruling does use strong language to order the Obama administration to rewrite the mandate, so that it will not harm religious organizations, such as Belmont Abbey College. The ruling also gives the administration a deadline of March 31, 2013, and said it will review the administration's actions every 60 days until it complies.

The lawsuit was filed by Belmont Abbey, a Catholic college in North Carolina and Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois. The suit is one of a number filed by Catholic institutions and other denominations challenging the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services Mandate requiring almost all employers to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization in their health care plans. Those which fail to comply with the mandate face the possibility of daily monetary penalties.

The Catholic Church has called the mandate a challenge to the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Consequently, more than 40 dioceses, Catholic colleges and other organizations have filed some 30 lawsuits to challenge the directives of the mandate.

The Belmont Abbey/Wheaton College suit is the first to reach an appellate court. Both schools are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Fund attorney Kyle Duncan said the court decision “is a win for all non-profits challenging the mandate.”

Last year, the Obama Administration decreed an August 2013 deadline by which all employers must implement the mandate or face the threat of government action for non-compliance.