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Ninth Circuit Upholds Block on Birth Control Exemption for Religious Employers

Mairead McArdle

A federal court in California on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to except religious organizations from the Obamacare requirement that employers provide birth control to their employees as part of their health insurance coverage.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued the two-to-one decision, stating that the administration’s new rules allowing exceptions for groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor fly in the face of the Affordable Care Act.

The Health and Human Services Department, Labor Department, and Treasury Department adopted the birth control exemption rules in 2017, and the rules were finalized in 2018 but have not yet gone into effect. The previous Obama administration rules required employers to provide birth control coverage with no co-payment.

“The panel held that the religious exemption contradicts congressional intent that all women have access to appropriate preventative care and the exemption operates in a manner fully at odds with the careful, individualized, and searching review mandated by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote for the majority.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra led 13 other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against the administration challenging the exemptions.

“Today will serve as a reminder to the Trump Administration that politicians and employers certainly have no business interfering with women’s reproductive healthcare,” Becerra said in a statement.

Senior Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, a George H.W. Bush appointee who leans conservative, penned a dissent, arguing that the case has more to do with states looking to save money than it has to do with women’s health care. He added that the decision is redundant because a judge in Pennsylvania has already halted the administration’s birth control exceptions.

“The casual reader may imagine that the dispute is about provision of contraception and abortion services to women. It is not.” Kleinfeld wrote. “No woman sued for an injunction in this case, and no affidavits have been submitted from any women establishing any question in this case about whether they will be deprived of reproductive services or harmed in any way by the modification of the regulation. This case is a claim by several states to prevent a modification of a regulation from going into effect, claiming that it will cost them money.”

Until the matter is resolved, the court’s decision will prevent the new rules from being implemented in California, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Illinois, Washington, Minnesota, Connecticut, North Carolina, Vermont, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.

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