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Obamacare contraceptives impose religious burden, US appeals court rules (+video)

The Tenth Circuit ruling in a case brought by the devout Christian owners of hobby and book stores marks the first time an appeals court has examined Obamacare's contraceptives policy.

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They object because they believe that life begins when an egg is fertilized. The company and its owners do not object to paying for their employees to use the other 16 contraceptive methods that prevent fertilization.

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The Obama administration has refused to issue an exemption to the companies. Government lawyers argue that the contraceptive mandate is no burden on religious belief because it is up to an individual employee to choose which method to use.

The owners disagree. They believe that life begins at conception and that contraceptive methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg are causing harm to human beings. The government mandate forces them to subsidize that harm. 

Hobby Lobby has more than 500 stores employing 13,000 fulltime workers. Mardel runs 35 bookstores employing 400 workers.

According to the court’s opinion, the companies face a difficult choice: Remain faithful to their religious beliefs or pay hefty fines. If they refuse to pay for the offensive contraceptives as part of the mandated coverage, they could face fines of up to $1.3 million a day or $475 million a year.

The opinion noted an alternative: “If the corporations instead drop employee health insurance altogether, they will face penalties of $26 million per year.”

Judge Tymkovich noted that government lawyers argue that there can be no claim under RFRA if the alleged government coercion of religious adherents depends on the independent action of third parties – like the Hobby Lobby employees.

The majority judges rejected that view. “Our only task is to determine whether the claimant’s belief is sincere, and if so, whether the government has applied substantial pressure on the claimant to violate that belief,” he wrote.

“No one disputes in this case the sincerity of Hobby Lobby and Mardel’s religious beliefs,” he said. “And because the contraceptive-coverage requirement places substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Mardel to violate their sincere religious beliefs, their exercise of religion is substantially burdened within the meaning of RFRA,” he wrote.

Typkovich noted that government lawyers have said the government’s interest in mandating universal health insurance coverage is to advance the twin goals of public health and gender equality. The judge said the government had not explained “how those larger interests would be undermined by granting Hobby Lobby and Mardel their requested exemption.”

“Hobby Lobby and Mardel ask only to be excused from covering four contraceptive methods out of twenty, not to be excused from covering contraception altogether,” the judge said. “The government does not articulate why accommodating such a limited request fundamentally frustrates its goals.”

The case is Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius (12-6294).

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