A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Denver-based Catholic order of nuns, must comply with the Affordable Care Act and allow their employees to obtain contraception coverage through a third-party insurer.
The ACA requires most employers, except houses of worship, to cover the full range of contraception in their health plans at no out-of-pocket cost to women. The law allows religious nonprofits, including the Little Sisters, to opt out of covering birth control if it is against their religious beliefs by filing for an exemption with the federal government. In those cases, the government will direct the third-party insurer to provide the contraception coverage to the women employed by the objecting organization.
The Little Sisters, which runs about 30 nursing homes around the country, sued the administration over the birth control rule because they said filling out a form for an exemption makes them complicit in the provision of birth control coverage, even if they don't have to pay for or provide it. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided against them on Tuesday, ruling that the accommodation carved out for them is “as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax form, or registering to vote.”
"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 (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act) or infringe upon their First Amendment rights," the court wrote.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that is representing the nuns, said it is currently reviewing the court's decision and considering whether to appeal the case with the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the administration must carve out an accommodation for closely held for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby, a craft supply chain store run by an evangelical Christian family.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead attorney for the Little Sisters, said he is "disappointed" with the 10th Circuit's decision.
"After losing repeatedly at the Supreme Court, the government continues its unrelenting pursuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor," Rienzi said. "It is a national embarrassment that the world’s most powerful government insists that, instead of providing contraceptives through its own existing exchanges and programs, it must crush the Little Sisters’ faith and force them to participate. Untold millions of people have managed to get contraceptives without involving nuns, and there is no reason the government cannot run its programs without hijacking the Little Sisters and their health plan."