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US Supreme Court wipes out 9th Circuit decision against HHS conscience protections

High court orders circuit court to reconsider its decision against March for Life in light of ruling upholding same HHS rules in other cases
Possible Big Decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court as It Enters the Second Half of Its Term

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday vacated a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decision against U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that protect organizations with religious or moral objections to including abortifacients in their health care plans. The Supreme Court ordered the 9th Circuit to reconsider its ruling in March for Life Education and Defense Fund v. California in light of the high court’s ruling upholding the same HHS protections in The Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Trump v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The HHS rules free organizations with such objections from a federal requirement that employer health plans cover abortifacients. The Obama administration implemented the requirement, which forces many employers to provide employees with abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception through their health plans under threat of heavy financial penalties, regardless of the employers’ religious or moral convictions. ADF attorneys represent March for Life, sponsor of the large annual pro-life march in Washington, D.C.

“The government shouldn’t be forcing anyone to violate their conscience by providing drugs and devices that can destroy life,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “Now that the Supreme Court has affirmed the HHS protections for Little Sisters of the Poor and others in the 3rd Circuit, the 9th Circuit should similarly ensure that pro-life organizations like March for Life can pursue their missions consistent with their beliefs.”

In 2014, March for Life challenged the abortifacient requirement in March for Life v. Burwell, which came to a close in September 2018 when the U.S. Department of Justice dropped its appeal of a 2015 permanent injunction.

HHS issued temporary rules in October 2017 that were designed to free objecting employers from the requirement and pave the way to potential resolution of numerous outstanding lawsuits. On Oct. 6, 2017, the same day that HHS issued its temporary rules, the state of California—later joined by other states who similarly favor abortion subsidies and oppose freedom of conscience—filed suit in federal district court to challenge the rules. In December 2017, March for Life asked the court to allow it to participate in the case, and the court granted that request. HHS then published final versions of the new protections, but the district court blocked them before they were supposed to go into effect in January 2019. The 9th Circuit issued a ruling upholding the district court’s decision.

Brian R. Chavez-Ochoa of the Chavez-Ochoa Law Offices in Valley Springs, California, one of more than 3,100 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as co-counsel on behalf of March for Life.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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John Bursch
John Bursch
Senior Counsel, Vice President of Appellate Advocacy
John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom.