The Affordable Care Act's, or "Obamacare's," birth control mandate "trammels the right of free exercise" of religion for an individual, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled Friday. But, the court did not rule, as other courts have in similar cases, that for-profit companies are protected by the Free Exercise clause. The decision's inconsistency with other court decisions on the birth control mandate increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will have to weigh in on the debate.
"We must determine whether the contraceptive mandate imposed by the [ACA] trammels the right of free exercise – a right that lies at the core of our constitutional liberties – as protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We conclude it does," Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The plaintiffs in the case are Francis and Philip Gilardi, owners of Freshway Foods in Ohio. The Gilardis are devout Catholics who objected to being required to include coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs in their company's health insurance plans.
The Gilardi's religious freedom was violated, the Court wrote, when the government forced them to choose between violating their religious beliefs and fulfilling the government mandate.
"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. In other words, the Gilardis are burdened when they are pressured to choose between violating their religious beliefs in managing their selected plan or paying onerous penalties," Brown wrote.
Citing figures such as John Locke, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as well as the congressional record related to passage of the First Amendment, Brown noted that freedom of conscience is implied in the Free Exercise clause.
"The Framers of the Constitution clearly embraced the philosophical insight that government coercion of moral agency is odious," she wrote. "Penalties are impertinent, according to Locke, if they are used to compel men 'to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences.'"
The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents the Gilardis, view the decision as a partial victory, Senior Counsel Frank Manion explained to The Christian Post in a Friday interview, because the Court found that the birth control mandate violates an individual's religious freedom, but would not say that it violates a business's religious freedom. For this reason, ACLJ will petition the Supreme Court to review the case. The decision left unclear, Manion explained, whether the government could fine the company for not providing birth control coverage.
In a similar case involving the Christian-owned company Hobby Lobby, the court found the opposite – the corporation enjoys religious freedom protections but religious freedom protections for the individual do not apply in this case. The U.S. Justice Department and Hobby Lobby have both asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that case.