Judge Blocks Trump's Religious Exemption to Obamacare's Contraceptive Mandate

(Photo: Stef Patag)Protesters against President Obama's HHS mandate requiring religious institutions provide contraception and abortion related services through health insurance hold signs outside City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, March 23, 2012.

A U.S. judge on Friday blocked the Trump administration's new HHS rules that exempt nonprofits and for-profit businesses from covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs.

Many business owners and religious nonprofits felt that the Obama-era mandate compelled them to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia issued a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of rules the administration announced in October that allowed businesses or non-profits to obtain exemptions on moral or religious grounds.

Beetlestone wrote that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who sued to block the rules, was likely to succeed in establishing that the administration did not follow proper notice procedures when issuing the new rules.

The judge said the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor and the Department of Treasury had also interpreted the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, "in a manner inconsistent with its text."

Beetlestone cited the "remarkable breadth" of the new rules, which she said would allow closely held corporations to deny contraceptive coverage for female employees not just for religious reasons but also for any moral reason they could articulate.

In an example that she said showed the moral exemption rule's "insidious effect," Beetlestone said an employer who believed women did not have a place in the workplace could simply stop providing contraceptive coverage.

"It is difficult to comprehend a rule that does more to undermine the Contraceptive Mandate or that intrudes more into the lives of women," Beetlestone wrote.

Shapiro said the nationwide injunction would protect women around the country.

"Donald Trump broke the law to undermine women's health, and women here in Pennsylvania stood up and proved that in court," he said in a statement.

The U.S. Justice Department defended the rules in court. Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said it was disappointed and is "committed to defending the religious liberty of all Americans."

The lawsuit is among several that Democratic state attorneys general filed after the Republican Trump administration revealed the new rules on Oct. 6. A federal judge in California heard arguments in a similar case on Tuesday.

The rules targeted the contraceptive mandate that was implemented as part of 2010's Affordable Care Act.

The rules will let businesses or non-profits lodge religious or moral objections to obtain an exemption from the law's mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance with no co-payment.

Conservative Christian activists and congressional Republicans praised the move, while reproductive rights advocates and Democrats criticized it.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish