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Government argues birth control mandate doesn't violate religious freedom

Published: Friday, Jan. 3 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the Becket Fund, explained that the main issue in the nonprofit cases deals with a certification form that must be signed that authorizes a third-party insurer to handle the contraception coverage for a non-profit religious objector.

The administration came up with the third-party solution after religious groups protested that the birth control mandate forced them to either violate tenets of their faith or pay hefty fines imposed by the government.

But shifting the responsibility for the contraception requirement hasn't satisfied many religious nonprofits that say they want a blanket exemption like that offered to churches and other houses of worship.

Rassbach said that so far, 18 federal courts have granted injunctions requested by religious non-profits against the mandate. Two courts have denied injunctions, one for the Little Sisters of the Poor and the other for Notre Dame University.

The Little Sisters case is unusual because that third party, Christian Brothers Services and Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust, handles health benefits for other Catholic nonprofits. But Rassbach said Christian Brothers, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, contracts with a secular provider for its pharmaceutical coverage, which includes birth control.

Basically, Rassbach explained, the Little Sisters of the Poor and Christian Brothers don't trust the government's assurances that the certification form is meaningless in their cases because of the unusual circumstances.

"The bottom line is the sisters need protection," he said.

Big fines

The Little Sisters, which operate nursing homes for the elderly poor in the United States and around the world, would face fines of up to $2.5 million a year for not complying with the mandate, according to court documents.

The documents also show that nearly 500 Catholic non-profit ministries provide employee benefits through the (Christian Brothers) Trust and face "onerous daily fines" unless they comply with the contraception mandate.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the White House said the ACA rules "strike the balance of providing women with free contraceptive coverage while preventing non-profit religious employers with religious objections to contraceptive coverage from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for such coverage.”

But Rienzi said the government can find a better way to meet its objective goal of providing free contraceptives to all women.

“Our federal government is massive and powerful," he said. "It can obviously find ways to distribute contraceptives and abortion pills without forcing nuns to be involved.”

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @deseretbrown

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