Hundreds of Catholic employers have been relieved of millions of dollars in crippling fines after a judge granted them relief from the penalties of violating the federal birth control mandate requiring organizations provide coverage of contraception and abortifacients in employee health care plans.
Judge David Russell of the United States District Court of Western Oklahoma has ruled that the controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate "violated" rights of CBA members guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The judge reasoned that the "women's preventive services mandate" enacted in 2012 by the Obama administration tried to coerce CBA members to provide coverage of drugs that they feel violate the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Russell permanently barred the federal government and future administrations from enforcing the mandate against CBA members or enacting any future regulation that would force them to provide such health care coverage.
The judge's ruling also eliminated the $6.9 million in fines that CBA member organizations have racked up for violating the mandate.
"This is the tremendous win," CBA CEO Douglas Wilson said in a statement. "The first freedom in the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The court has rightly ruled that employers should not be forced to violate their beliefs and cover morally problematic elective and often low-cost choices that individuals may wish to make."
CBA, which serves over 1,000 Catholic orders, hospitals, universities, archdioceses and other institutions, has been in a legal battle against the mandate since 2014.
"Catholic employers who belong to the CBA are now free from attempts by the federal government to coerce them into providing morally offensive healthcare coverage," the Catholic League's Bill Donohue said in a statement. "This is a smashing victory for religious liberty and a stunning defeat for the pro-abortion industry and its allies."
CBA is not the first religious organization to win relief from the mandate. In February, the Illinois-based evangelical higher education institution Wheaton College won a similar lawsuit.
Additionally, the Little Sisters of the Poor (an order of nuns) became national figures when they and other religious organizations filed a lawsuit against the mandate.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously vacated lower court rulings against the Little Sisters and the other organizations and remanded the case back to lower courts. The court ruled that both parties "should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'"
Evangelical activist Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, praised Russell's ruling.
"The real motivation behind the HHS mandate wasn't to expand insurance coverage, it was to eradicate any entity that isn't in line with the Left," Perkins wrote in a blog post. "The totalitarians in the last administration had no desire to have a conversation or arrive at a consensus. Their goal was eliminating anyone who doesn't march to the beat of their radical drum. Thank goodness that Obama's mandates were so far outside the constitutional boundaries that even the courts couldn't ignore it."
Last October, the Trump administration expanded the exemption to the contraception mandate to include religious employers. The administration passed rules to allow any nonprofit or for-profit organization to make religious objections to the mandate.
The decision was praised by religious conservatives and religious freedom advocates, while it was criticized by proponents of birth control and abortion.
Last year, two federal judges issued rulings against the Trump administration's mandate exemptions. However in March, a judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Massachusetts against the new mandate rules.