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Justice Department says Hobby Lobby ruling backs contraception accommodation for nonprofits

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court's ruling in favour of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government's position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented non-profit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday's court filing was the administration's first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans.

Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The issue in the lawsuits filed by Wheaton and other non-profit groups is different because the administration already has allowed them to opt out of paying for the objectionable contraception by telling the government that doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

But they must fill out Form 700 that enables their insurers or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control. The employer does not have to arrange the coverage or pay for it. Insurers get reimbursed by the government through credits against fees owed under other provisions of the health care law.

The fight is over completing the form, which the nonprofits say violates their religious beliefs because it forces them to participate in a system to subsidize and distribute the contraception.

The justices pointed to the accommodation as an acceptable way to get contraception to women without stepping on the religious beliefs of the for-profit companies.

The administration said the outcome strongly suggested that the court would come out in its favour if and when it takes on the nonprofits' challenge.

"The decision in Hobby Lobby rested on the premise that these accommodations 'achieve all of the Government's aims' underlying the preventive-health services coverage requirement 'while providing greater respect for religious liberty,'" the Justice Department said, quoting from Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion.

Most groups that have challenged the accommodation have won temporary reprieves from having to complete the form that government requires.

On Monday, just hours after the Hobby Lobby decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta granted one such request from the Alabama-based Eternal Word Television Network. Judge William H. Pryor Jr. said in a separate opinion in that case that the administration "turns a blind eye to the undisputed evidence that delivering Form 700 would violate the Network's religious beliefs."

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