Universal access to birth control for women was put on hold Friday by a federal appeals court that decided it would trample on the religious freedoms of employers.
The ruling by a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals means that business owners who wish to deny birth control access to female employees may purchase insurance policies which do not cover those services.
"The burden on religious exercise does not occur at the point of contraceptive purchase; instead, it occurs when a company's owners fill the basket of goods and services that constitute a healthcare plan," Judge Janice Rogers Brown, appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority in the court's 2-1 ruling (PDF).
Women's rights advocates thought the issue had been put to bed when the Obama administration issued a compromise last February. That compromise lets religious employers opt out of paying for birth control coverage, tasking insurance companies with provide birth control at no additional cost to women -- which actually saves employers and insurers money in the long run, according to the National Business Group on Health. The law's requirement that women receive birth control through their health insurance at no additional cost to them also specifically exempts churches and other places of worship.
Nevertheless, the religious conservative owners of two Ohio grocery stores forced the issue and filed a lawsuit, maintaining that even if employers could opt for a religious exception and not be forced to pay for birth control, their religious freedom was still being trampled under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
"The bipartisan-passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act plainly states that no one can be compelled to violate his or her conscience, in this case, by providing or purchasing things like abortion pills," Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, said in a media advisory. "The D.C. court has affirmed that this principle applies to everyone, be they small business owners or nuns. Hopefully the Obama administration will finally stop bullying religious employers and repeal its oppressive mandate."
However, D.C. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards noted in his dissent that the mandate does not substantially burden their "exercise of religion," namely because the objecting parties have not been required to purchase or use birth control themselves. They also retain the right to publicly disapprove of contraceptives, he wrote, making their complaint significantly different "from every case in which the Court has found a substantial burden on religious exercise."
The case will almost assuredly be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which could simultaneously weigh in on whether corporations, instead of just individuals, also share in the right to free exercise of religion, much as they now enjoy the right to call unlimited campaign contributions free speech, due to the Citizens United ruling. The plaintiffs in the case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, were referenced as individuals.
Photo: Flickr user lookcatalog, creative commons licensed.