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HHS mandate moves closer to U.S. Supreme Court after Christian colleges’ court victory

Lisa Bourne Lisa Bourne Follow Lisa

ST. LOUIS, MO, September 18, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – Proponents of religious freedom were dealt a legal win Thursday in the ongoing court battle over the conflict between religious liberty and ObamaCare's HHS mandate.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled that the ObamaCare accommodation does not adequately accommodate employers whose religious beliefs are in conflict with the bill's requirement that employers provide all female employees with contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

Some non-profit entities with a religious objection may sign a waiver, which signals their insurance company to provide women with such drugs for “free.” Religious groups have said signing the paper is a gimmick that still requires them to participate in evil.

In two decisions involving Christian colleges, a Christian ministry, and a handful of individuals, corporations and non-profits, the court ruled that forcing the plaintiffs to comply with the accommodation process under threat of severe monetary penalty was a substantial burden on their exercise of religion.

The decisions protect the plaintiffs from enforcement of the ObamaCare mandate while the cases advance.

The decision, the first of its kind from a federal appeals court, heightens the chance that the Supreme Court will take up the issue.

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The two cases, along with seven others pending at the Supreme Court, are follow-ups to last year’s SCOTUS Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling. However, the Hobby Lobby case pertained to a for-profit business, whereas this new round of cases involves charities, non-profit business operators, colleges, and schools, all with religious objections to some of the contraceptives mandated by ObamaCare.
When the Obama administration filed its first response in the Supreme Court to the new group of non-profit cases last month, it counted on the unanimous appeals court findings up until then for its argument against Supreme Court review, according to SCOTUSblog.com.

With Thursday’s decisions, that situation has changed.

The plaintiffs in the two latest cases argued that completing a form or sending a letter informing government of their objection did not absolve them of providing contraceptive or abortifacient coverage, and was still ultimately a violation of their religious beliefs.

Faced with a legal setback, an Obama administration spokesperson highlighted the earlier court decisions, saying, “The contraceptive accommodation process strikes the proper balance between ensuring women have equal access to health care and protecting religious beliefs.”

Plaintiff attorneys in both cases praised the rulings.

“Fifteen federal judges now agree that the government has no right to dictate or second guess a person’s sincere religious beliefs,” said Lori Windham, a senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued in the case for several religious ministries and in the Hobby Lobby case.

“The government keeps telling the Supreme Court ‘Move along, nothing important here’ in hopes that the court will ignore this crucial issue,” Windham said. “But with today’s decisions, the Court will have great reason to decide this issue in the next term.”

Windham said the federal government had argued that the ministries were being paranoid, and that it was just asking them for signatures on a piece of meaningless paper, an argument which didn’t hold up in court.

“We need look no further than the government’s own litigation behavior to gauge the importance of [the government’s forms] in the regulatory scheme,” she said.

If it was just a meaningless form, “there would be no need to insist on compliance with” the government’s demands.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Gregory Baylor, who argued before the Eighth Circuit in the other case last year, concurred.

“In America, faith-based colleges and universities should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis,” Baylor said. “If the administration can punish Christian organizations simply because they want to abide by their faith, there is no limit to what other freedoms it can take away. The Eighth Circuit was right to uphold the district court’s order and block enforcement of this unconstitutional mandate.”

The Obama administration can now decide whether to petition the full Eighth Circuit to rehear the cases now or, eventually, take the case to the Supreme Court.

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