Federal Judges Block Rules Providing Religious and Moral Exemptions for Abortion Mandate

Federal conscience protections for American employers who object to the abortion/contraception mandate are on hold.

Federal judges in California and Pennsylvania blocked Sunday (Jan. 13) and Monday (Jan. 14), respectively, implementation of final rules from the Trump administration that provided exemptions for employers with religious or moral objections to the 2011 requirement instituted under President Obama.

The opinions prevented rules issued in November by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from taking effect Monday while challenges proceed in the courts. The ruling in Pennsylvania was a preliminary injunction for the entire country, while the decision in California affected the 13 states, as well as the District of Columbia, that have sued HHS.

The court actions are the latest shots in a seven-year battle over a controversial regulation that helped implement the 2010 health-care reform law. The rule required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions, or face potentially devastating fines. It elicited legal challenges from more than 90 religious nonprofit organizations, including GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and at least seven Baptist universities.

One of the new regulations issued Nov. 7 exempts entities and individuals from the mandate based on their religious beliefs, while the other rule protects individuals, nonprofit organizations and small businesses on the basis of a moral conviction apart from a specific religious belief.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which advocated for an exemption to the mandate for GuideStone and other religious or moral objectors, expressed continued support for the new HHS rules.

“The contraceptive mandate revealed the audacity of a state that believed it could annex the human conscience,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “This government overreach asks citizens to choose between obedience to God and compliance with the regulatory state.

“The Little Sisters of the Poor victory at the Supreme Court and the HHS religious and moral exemptions were crucial achievements in the preservation of religious liberty and must be defended.”

The final HHS rules issued in November came more than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court nullified multiple federal appeals court decisions against GuideStone and other religious institutions and more than four years following the justices’ decision in favor of Hobby Lobby’s conscience-based challenge to the mandate.

In a statement published by The Washington Post, Kelly Laco of the Department of Justice said, “As we’ve said before, religious organizations should not be forced to violate their mission and deeply-held beliefs. In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defending religious liberty.”

GuideStone and two of the ministries it represents — as well as some other objecting organizations — already have gained final, favorable verdicts in court, but some have not.

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Source: Baptist Press