A federal appeals court ruling today that allows owners of secular for-profit corporations to refuse to provide certain forms of birth control to their employees is a dangerous distortion of the concept of religious freedom, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 2-1 that the Catholic owners of Freshway Foods can challenge the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act under a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requires most secular employers to offer coverage for birth control in employee health-care plans. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and accommodations have been made for religiously affiliated non-profits.
The appeals court ruled that although the corporation itself has no right to challenge the mandate, the owners of the firm, the Gilardi family, do.
Americans United says the court made the wrong call.
“Decisions like this stand the concept of religious freedom on its head,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Religious liberty means the right to make decisions for yourself, not other people. Freedom of religion is certainly not a blank check to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.”
In a legal brief submitted in the Gilardi v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services case, Americans United argued that the owners of secular businesses do not have a religious liberty right to deny their employees access to contraceptives.
AU also argued that allowing the exemption would open the door for other corporate owners to make demands based on their faith’s tenets, such as companies owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to cover surgeries that include blood transfusions.
The Gilardi case is one of several challenging the contraceptive mandate brought by Religious Right and Catholic-oriented legal groups. Federal appellate courts have issued conflicting rulings on the matter, and many legal observers believe the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
If that happens, Lynn said he hopes the high court elevates the rights of individuals over secular corporations.
“Health care is a deeply personal matter,” Lynn said. “It should not be subject to someone else’s personal dogma.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.