Religious groups challenge birth control coverage under Obamacare

A federal court in Denver will hear objections to a birth-control rule has been among the most divisive aspects of the Obama administration's health care overhaul. Some advocates for women praise the mandate, but some religious groups have decried it as an attack on religious freedom.

Faith-based nonprofit organizations that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans are in federal court Monday to challenge a birth-control compromise they say still compels them to violate their religious beliefs.

The plaintiffs include a group of Colorado nuns and four Christian colleges in Oklahoma. They are already exempt from covering contraceptives under the federal health care law.

But they say the exemption doesn't go far enough because they must sign away the coverage to another party, making them feel complicit in providing the contraceptives.

The groups are appealing to the 10th Circuit in Denver, the court that ruled last year that for-profit companies can join the exempted religious organizations and not provide the contraceptives.

The U.S. Supreme Court later agreed with the 10th Circuit in the case brought by the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain.

The birth-control rule has been among the most divisive aspects of the Obama administration's health care overhaul. Some advocates for women praise the mandate, but some religious groups have decried it as an attack on religious freedom.

The Denver nuns, called the Little Sisters of the Poor, run more than two dozen nursing homes for impoverished seniors. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court offered the nuns a short-term reprieve on the exemption pending their appeal.

The government will argue Monday that its 2013 rule on religious groups and contraceptives, which requires only that a religious group sign "a self-certification form stating that it is an eligible organization," does not make that religious group complicit in providing contraceptives.

The rule "does not require nonprofit religious organizations with religious objections to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for that coverage," lawyers for the federal government wrote in a 2013 filing.

The nuns' lawyer, Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the government is free to provide contraception coverage on its own without needing any action at all by the religious institutions. The government, he said, simply wants such coverage to come through the institutions' own plans.

"It's our plan, that's what they want to control," Rienzi said.

"Millions of people around the world get contraceptives with no nuns involved. It's almost laughable."

Under the health care law, most health insurance plans have to cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives as preventive care for women, free of cost to the patient.

Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the birth control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the general public are not. That includes charitable organizations, universities and hospitals.

In addition to the Denver nuns, the 10th Circuit is hearing challenges from Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Mid-America University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Also challenging the waiver process is a group called Reaching Souls International, an evangelist Oklahoma organization that does Christian mission work overseas.

The three-judge panel hearing arguments Monday includes one who also ruled in the Hobby Lobby decision.

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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