By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court in Washington joined other courts on Friday by ruling for an employer who raised religious objections to a provision of the 2010 U.S. healthcare law requiring companies to provide insurance that covers birth control.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on a 2-1 vote in favor of Catholic brothers Francis and Philip Gilardi, owners of Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, who do not want to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion.
The legal question of whether employers can exercise their religious rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to avoid complying with the so-called "contraception mandate" is almost certain to eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Friday's ruling, the court said the corporations did not have First Amendment rights to press a claim but that the two brothers, as shareholders, did.
The appeals court reversed a lower court ruling that denied the brothers a preliminary injunction.
Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote that as a result of the regulation, the brothers "can either abide by the sacred tenets of their faith, pay a penalty of over $14 million, and cripple the companies they have spent a lifetime building, or they become complicit in a grave moral wrong."
The latest ruling brings to four the number of appeals courts to rule for employers, including preliminary decisions, while two others have ruled that the regulation must be complied with, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Obama administration and a Christian legal group called the Alliance Defending Freedom already have Supreme Court petitions pending in two different cases concerning the same issue.
The fact that federal appeals courts are split on the legal question and parties on both sides want the Supreme Court to weigh in could influence it to decide to take up the issue, even in its current term ending in June.
(This story has been corrected to fix court vote in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Vicki Allen)