- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2017

A federal judge has temporarily blocked President Trump’s decision to roll back Obama-era rules that require employers to provide free birth control as part of their health plans.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone, presiding in Philadelphia, issued a preliminary injunction Friday against Mr. Trump’s interim final rule, which said any employer who asserts a good-faith religious objection or moral objection to covering contraceptives would be exempt from the mandate.

Judge Beetlestone said the text of the 2010 health care law didn’t provide for “sweeping exemptions” from the mandate to cover preventive services.

“A simple hypothetical illustrates the insidious effect of the Moral Exemption Rule,” Judge Beetlestone, an Obama appointee, wrote. “It would allow an employer with a sincerely held moral conviction that women do not have a place in the workplace to simply stop providing contraceptive coverage.”

The judge said it is “difficult to comprehend a rule that does more to undermine the Contraceptive Mandate or that intrudes more into the lives of women.”

Critics of President Obama’s rules vowed to appeal, saying the judge was “wrong on the law.”

An outgrowth of Obamacare, the “contraceptive mandate” required employers to insure an array of birth control drugs and devices as part of their health plans or else pay crippling fines.

While grandfathered plans and houses of worship were fully exempt, Mr. Obama required devout business owners and religious nonprofits to formally cite their objections, so an insurer or third party could step in and provide the drugs and services.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who care for the elderly, and other religious nonprofits sued all the way to the Supreme Court, saying they wanted to be fully carved out of providing contraceptives they consider sinful, though deadlocked justices told both sides to figure out a compromise.

The Trump administration sympathized with the sisters and other nonprofits and issued his sweeping exemption in October.

The change sparked new court battles, this time from civil liberties groups, women’s rights advocates and Democratic attorneys general in California and Pennsylvania.

The AGs say the new rules violate constitutional prohibitions on imposing religious beliefs or depriving people, in this case female employees, of equal protection under the law.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro argued the rules also violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because they were issued without adequate input from the public.

Judge Beetlestone said the state of Pennsylvania had standing to sue, because it would likely suffer “irreparable harm” in the form of taxpayer costs, should Mr. Trump’s changes proceed unchecked.

“This is not a speculative harm,” Judge Beetlestone, wrote, noting the Trump administration cited state and local programs as a backstop. “As more women residents of the Commonwealth are deprived of contraceptive services through their insurance plans and turn to these State and local programs, the Commonwealth will likely make greater expenditures to ensure adequate contraceptive care.”

Judge Beetlestone said Pennsylvania is likely to succeed on the merit of its APA claims, though the Little Sisters’ disagreed with her findings.

“Today’s ruling is wrong on the law and we will be appealing it immediately,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a religious-liberty firm that represents the sisters. “We are confident that the appeals court or the Supreme Court will overturn this ruling and ensure that the government can do the right thing and continue to protect religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

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