The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday sided with the Obama administration in the nationwide legal battle over the mandate to cover contraception services, marking the second time a federal appeals court rebuffed a company that argued the mandatory coverage of birth control violates its religious beliefs.
A third court, seated in Denver, took an opposing view in July when it granted the Hobby Lobby crafts franchise an injunction that shields the Oklahoma City company from the rule tied to the Affordable Care Act until the merits of their case can be heard.
Taken together, the split rulings indicate that the matter is headed for the highest court in the land.
"This just sets it up for Supreme Court review," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing some of the employers who object to the mandate.
Judges on the 6th Circuit, seated in Cincinnati, said Tuesday that a Michigan-based manufacturing company named Autocam must comply with the mandate even though it would violate the owners' Roman Catholic beliefs.
John Kennedy, president of Autocam, and other plaintiffs who sued over the mandate, said the Obama administration's rule required them to choose among violating their beliefs, dropping Autocam employees' health care coverage or facing massive fines for flouting the mandate.
Conservative lawmakers and religious groups have lobbied the Obama administration and Congress to provide a religious exemption from the mandate, citing particular objections to morning-after pills that they equate with abortion.
Supporters of the mandate say contraception use is widespread and at times unaffordable for many women. They argue that corporate owners are not entitled to impose their personal beliefs on the diverse array of people they employ at secular companies by stripping contraception coverage from their health care plans.
"The Kennedys' actions with respect to Autocam are not actions taken in an individual capacity, but as officers and directors of the corporation," the 6th Circuit panel wrote.
The judges said they agreed with government attorneys who argued "that Autocam has not carried its burden of demonstrating a strong likelihood of success on the merits in this action."
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the ruling.
"Religious liberty is a fundamental right, but for-profit companies cannot invoke religious beliefs to deny their employees benefits," ACLU senior staff attorney Brigitte Amiri said.
Houses of worship are exempt from the contraception mandate, and religious nonprofits have been extended an "accommodation" that would divorce corporate owners from managing or paying for their employees' contraception coverage.
But corporations were not granted any form of relief from the requirement.
In late July, about a week after Hobby Lobby's successful plea to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, judges on the 3rd Circuit said a Pennsylvania-based company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, had to comply with the mandate.
A decision tracker at the Becket Fund said 29 companies have secured an injunction against the mandate at either the district or circuit court level, while five firms, including Conestoga and Autocam, have been denied relief.
Mr. Duncan said the Obama administration has until Sept. 25 to decide whether it will ask the Supreme Court to take up the Hobby Lobby case that went against them.
"I can't imagine that the United States [government] will just acquiesce in that," Mr. Duncan said, given the case's impact in the states covered by the 10th Circuit.
On Tuesday, a federal district court judge in Colorado cited the Hobby Lobby decision at length in an order that shielded former Sen. Bill Armstrong's mortgage company from the mandate.
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