Religious organizations challenge contraception mandate in federal court

Another challenge to the Health and Human Services contraception mandate landed in federal court Monday in a case brought by the group Priests for Life, along with some individual plaintiffs.

They argue that being forced to provide no-cost access to all forms of contraception, including those they believe actually induce abortions, would violate their religious freedom.

After Monday's hearing, Father Frank Pavone, National Director of PFL, said, "What we just saw in that courtroom is of Biblical proportions."

The Obama administration doesn't see it that way. Government attorneys have argued that there are exemptions for entities that are truly operating as religious organizations and can prove it.

However, the plaintiff's attorneys argue that even if they are able to qualify, they are still under an unacceptable burden: facilitating employee access to the contraception via a third-party vendor.

Pavone said the options are unacceptable, and warns the group will drop health insurance altogether if forced to comply with the mandate. "Where are the brakes?" Pavone asked, adding, "Where does it stop for the government to tell the church what it can and cannot do?"

Supporters of the mandate say the administration has worked to find balance.

"The Obama administration has, I think, made a very strong compromise trying to accommodate religious liberty interests while at the same time protecting the health of women,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center.

There are now more than 80 similar lawsuits pending across the country. Just last week, the University of Notre Dame and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), both filed suit, as well.

"I think the Obama administration's attempts to take religious freedom away from anyone are bound to fail,” said Matthew Bowman, the senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing FOCUS.

The lower courts considering the dozens of challenges to the HHS mandate may wait for guidance from the Supreme Court.

The justices have agreed to hear the cases of two for-profit organizations whose owners say their rights will be violated if they're forced to comply. Though the newest lawsuits stem from faith-based organizations, that Supreme Court decision -- due by June 2014 -- could provide enormous legal precedent.