A divided three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that the contraceptive mandate imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) [text; JURIST backgrounder] violates the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause [LII backgrounder]. Before Congress passed the PPACA in 2010, the owners of Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics [corporate websites], both adherents to the Catholic faith, excluded contraceptive coverage from their companies' group health plans. The PPACA, however, mandates that all group health plans comport with guidance issued by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) [government website], which in turn directed that companies providing group health plans cover certain approved contraceptive methods or pay a penalty. The owners sued the government in the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website], which denied their motion to preliminarily enjoin the PPACA's enforcement. On interlocutory appeal, the DC Circuit required that the plaintiffs show, among other things, a substantial chance of succeeding on the merits. The court overruled the district court's decision, holding that:
[In general, the] Government may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief, nor penalize or discriminate against individuals because they hold religious views abhorrent to the authorities. The contraceptive mandate demands that [the owners] meaningfully approve and endorse the inclusion of contraceptive coverage in their companies' employer-provided plans, over whatever objections they may have. Such an endorsement, procured exclusively by regulatory ukase, is a compelled affirmation of a repugnant belief. That, standing alone, is a cognizable burden on free exercise. And the burden becomes substantial because the government commands compliance by giving the [owner's] a Hobson's choice. They can either abide by the sacred tenets of their faith, pay a penalty of over $14 million, and cripple the companies they have spent a lifetime building, or they become complicit in a grave moral wrong.The DC Circuit's ruling marks the fourth circuit court ruling with respect to the PPACA's contraceptive mandate, leading some to believe that the US Supreme Court will likely hear [Washington Times report] one of the cases to definitively decide the issue.
The PPACA has been subject to various challenges. In October the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected [JURIST report] claims by Eden Foods, Inc. that it should be exempt on religious grounds from the contraception mandate of the PPACA. Earlier in October a federal judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia declined [JURIST report] to issue a preliminary injunction against the insurance subsidies provision of the PPACA. Also in October Hobby Lobby filed a brief [JURIST report] urging the US Supreme Court to review its case regarding the constitutionality of the PPACA birth-control mandate. In July the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld [JURIST report] Congress' authority to require larger employers to provide adequate health insurance for their employees or pay a fine. Liberty University had brought the challenge and the US Supreme Court remanded [JURIST report] the case to the Fourth Circuit that in turn determined that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. In June 2012 the Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that the PPACA does not violate the constitution in a case that focused on the "individual mandate" provision of the act, which requires every person, with some exceptions for religious and other reasons, to purchase some form of health insurance by January 1, 2014, or be subject to a fee equal to either a percent of that individual's income or flat rate of $695.