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Originally published July 27, 2013 at 2:36 PM | Page modified August 1, 2013 at 1:17 PM

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Rulings conflict on health law’s contraceptive mandate

A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that a Pennsylvania cabinetmaking company owned by a Mennonite family must comply with the contraceptive mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act.

The Washington Post

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A federal appeals court ruling has increased the chances that the Supreme Court in its coming term will need to settle whether secular, for-profit corporations must provide contractive coverage to employees despite the owners’ religious objections.

A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled Friday that a Pennsylvania cabinetmaking company owned by a Mennonite family must comply with the contraceptive mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act.

The majority said it “respectfully disagrees” with judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, who recently narrowly found just the opposite. A split in interpreting federal statutes is usually an invitation for the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

This one is novel: The justices have never said whether a secular corporation is protected by the Constitution or federal statute from complying with a law because of religious objections from its owners.

The 3rd Circuit majority noted that the court has numerous times — most recently in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — found that corporations have free-speech rights. But it said there was a “total absence of case law” to support the argument that corporations are protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

“Even if we were to disregard the lack of historical recognition of the right, we simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation — apart from its owners — can exercise religion,” wrote Circuit Judge Robert Cowen, who was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas Vanaskie.

Circuit Judge Kent Jordan said in a dissent twice as long as the majority opinion that if there is a lack of case law establishing a corporation’s religious rights, “that is in all probability because there has never before been a government policy that could be perceived as intruding on religious liberty as aggressively as the mandate.”

The mandate requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide insurance that covers federally approved birth-control measures. Conestoga Wood Specialties, which has 950 employees, is owned by the Hahn family, which says that its Mennonite religion teaches that life begins at conception.

The lawsuit is among more than 60 objecting to the contraceptive mandate. Some are filed by companies such as Conestoga and others by nonprofit groups and organizations with religious connections.

In a decision by the entire 10th Circuit, the closely divided judges ruled that the chain store Hobby Lobby was likely protected by the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from having to provide contraceptive coverage that violated the owners’ religious beliefs.

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