An anti-abortion group with no religious affiliation cannot claim an exemption from the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers provide employee health insurance covering contraception, a federal judge has ruled in Harrisburg.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III found that Real Alternatives, a pregnancy and parenting counseling agency that advises women to carry pregnancies to full term and avoid abortions, has no right to an exemption from the ACA requirement, because it cites only moral objections to it and provides no religious basis for its position.

Jones said in his 76-page opinion, released Thursday, that statutory and constitutional protections for religious-based institutions are extensive, but don't exist for groups that claim no religious underpinning.

"A vast history of legislative protections exists to safeguard religious freedom," Jones said. "Moral philosophies, however, have been historically unable to enjoy the same privileged state. Real Alternatives does not hold itself out as a religious entity, is not incorporated as such, and has not adopted any religious views or positions."

Real Alternatives began counseling women in the 1990s about abortion alternatives. According to the agency's website, it operates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana. It receives an annual appropriation of $6.7 million from Pennsylvania. The agency did not respond to calls Friday to its headquarters in Harrisburg seeking comment.

Kermit Roosevelt, constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the judge's legal reasoning was straightforward.

"This is a religious exemption, so it shouldn't apply to a group that has moral but not religious objections," Roosevelt said.

The issues in the case resemble the landmark Hobby Lobby dispute, in which the Supreme Court ruled in June 2014 that owners of closely held companies could be exempt on religious grounds from the ACA's contraception insurance coverage mandate.

In that case, the high court ruled that employers can abstain from offering coverage for birth control on religious grounds as long as there were other means for their employees to obtain contraceptives.

Real Alternatives for years excluded contraception coverage from its employee health insurance plan, but said in its lawsuit, filed in January against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that its insurer dropped that plan after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, providing only health coverage that included contraception.

Real Alternatives sued HHS, claiming that it was entitled to the same contraception coverage exemption as religious-based organizations and that to treat organizations differently on this issue breached the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Jones, noting that the HHS regulations permitting exemptions for religious-based institutions specifically invoked their religious nature, said there was no basis to claim Real Alternatives had been treated unfairly.

Jones said that for the same reason, the plaintiff's due process argument failed, and its claim that the requirement violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act's protection against arbitrary and capricious actions also failed. He said HHS had a rational basis for imposing the requirement on the agency.

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