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Obama's health-care mandate upheld by federal appeals court

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 1:32 a.m.

Although corporations have many of the same constitutional rights as individuals, they don't have the same rights of religious freedoms, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

The 2-1 ruling by a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” and therefore can't challenge, on religious grounds, a 2010 federal mandate requiring them to provide health insurance coverage for morning-after pill emergency contraception.

The ruling directly affects a Lancaster County door and cabinet manufacturer that challenged the mandate but sets a precedent for federal courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands.

Because another appeals court has made the opposite ruling, it sets up a likely Supreme Court challenge.

Don Barefoot, president and CEO of C12 Group, a Greensboro, N.C., Christian business leadership group, said the ruling could force many business owners to defy the law or walk away from companies rather than violate their consciences.

“This is a whole new level of attack on religious freedom in America,” he said.

A Venango County company, Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co. Inc. of Rockland, has a similar challenge pending in Pittsburgh's federal court. Both privately held companies claim the mandate violates their owners' religious beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti in April issued a preliminary injunction blocking the government from enforcing the mandate on the company while it pursues its challenge. The 3rd Circuit ruling overturned a similar injunction in the Lancaster County case.

Wayne Hepler, one of the Seneca company's owners, could not be reached for comment.

Matt Bowman, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious freedom group representing both employers, said the ruling won't affect Seneca Hardwoods until the Lancaster company exhausts its appeals.

“The freedom to exercise faith in business is something we're going to vigorously seek to protect in Pennsylvania and the 3rd Circuit,” he said.

The appeal options include asking the three-judge panel to reconsider its decision, asking for a hearing before the entire 14-judge circuit or appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, he said.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June ruled that Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. of Oklahoma City and Christian bookstore company Mardel Inc. could exercise religion and challenge the mandate.

With contradictory rulings from the circuit courts, the Supreme Court likely will take up the issue, Bowman said.

A spokesman for the Justice Department's Civil Division, which is representing the Obama administration in these and more than 60 other challenges to the mandate, could not be reached for comment. Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union did not return calls for comment.

Rhonda Wasserman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said the 3rd Circuit ruling likely will result in Seneca Hardwoods losing its injunction. Judges rarely reverse their rulings, but a change in the law, such as the appeals court ruling, is an exception, she said.

The government could ask the judge to reconsider her April ruling or simply vacate the injunction, but in either case, “the 3rd Circuit decision would be binding in the (Pittsburgh) case,” Wasserman said.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, declined to comment on the ruling. The diocese is one of several that challenged the mandate's application to its nonprofit organizations.

Conti dismissed the diocese's challenge on the grounds that the Obama administration was working on a change to the regulation that would exempt its nonprofits. Lengwin said the diocese is studying that revision.

“We still retain full rights to file a new lawsuit to challenge the new rules,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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