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Religious schools claim 'major victory' after ruling on contraception mandate

Two religious-affiliated colleges claimed a "major victory" Tuesday after a federal appeals court ordered the Obama administration to verify that it is revising the so-called contraception mandate in ObamaCare.

The decision out of the D.C. Court of Appeals effectively reinstated a challenge that had been dismissed by lower courts. Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College were arguing against the federal health care overhaul rule that requires employers to provide access to contraceptive care. 

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented several plaintiffs challenging the rule, hailed the court decision. 

"The D.C. Circuit has now made it clear that government promises and press conferences are not enough to protect religious freedom," Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund, said in a statement. "The court is not going to let the government slide by on non-binding promises to fix the problem down the road." 

The court ruling did not overturn the contraception mandate. Rather, it effectively put the court case on hold while requiring the Obama administration to follow through on its pledge to revise the mandate as it pertains to religious-affiliated groups. 

"We take that as a binding commitment," the court said in its ruling Tuesday. The court ordered the administration to file status reports every 60 days on its progress toward issuing a new policy in the first quarter of 2013. 

The contraception rule does include an exemption for religious organizations -- but that exemption does not cover many religious-affiliated organizations like schools and charities. 

Complaints about the narrowly tailored exemption prompted a stand-off between the Obama administration and religious groups earlier this year. As a compromise, Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius decided insurers -- and not the religious-affiliated organizations themselves -- would be required to offer contraceptive coverage directly, supposedly without cost-sharing. 

But the Becket Fund points out that the administration "has not yet taken the steps necessary to make that promise legally binding." 

The court decision Tuesday would require the Department of Health and Human Services to follow through. 

The case is one of several that have continued to wend their way through the system, even after the Supreme Court upheld most of the health care overhaul over the summer. 

Meanwhile, other groups have expressed concern about what the mandate will mean for their own survival. One group, The Little Sisters of the Poor, told The Daily Caller that the mandate could be a "serious threat" to the group's U.S. mission of 300 nuns. 

The organization, as a Catholic group, opposes contraception, and the concern is that the fine that could be imposed for violating the rule would impose financial hardship. "We have no extra funding that would cover these fines," Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, spokeswoman for the organization, told the Caller.