By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a win for the Obama administration on insurance coverage for contraception under Obamacare, a U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled that Catholic non-profit groups' religious rights were not violated by a compromise already achieved on the volatile issue.
Catholic groups had sued over the compromise, saying they should not have to pay for or facilitate access to contraception or abortion, but a judge wrote in the ruling that under the compromise, "the regulations do not compel them to do that."
Handed down by a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Circuit, the unanimous decision is the third by an appeals court to rule in favor of the government. The issue could yet be decided by the Supreme Court.
The court ruled that the compromise on contraception coverage, issued in 2013 and amended in August, did not impose a substantial burden on the plaintiffs' religious beliefs, which would be a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Judge Nina Pillard wrote in the decision that the compromise helps the plaintiffs wash "their hands of any involvement in providing insurance for contraceptive services."
The compromise allows the groups to avoid paying for the coverage required under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare. Groups can certify they are opting out, which then forces insurers to pick up the tab.
The Catholic groups that sued, Priests for Life and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, argued the certification process still essentially forces the groups to authorize the coverage for its employees, even if they are not technically paying for it. Religious institutions are exempt from the contraception coverage requirement.
The ruling comes five months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely-held companies could, on religious grounds, seek exemptions from the contraception provision. Days later, in a case similar to the Washington dispute, the Supreme Court allowed a college in Illinois a temporary exemption while litigation continues.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alan Crosby)