federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the owners of a Michigan company do not have legal standing to seek an exemption from providing certain forms of contraception required under Obamacare that company owners consider religiously offensive and immoral.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the owners of Autocam Corp. and Autocam Medical asking the courts to block a government requirement that the company provide their 661 US-based employees with access to abortifacients and other forms of contraception that violate the owners’ religious beliefs.

The companies are owned by John Kennedy and other members of his family, who are devout members of the Roman Catholic Church. They say they seek to run their businesses in full accord with their Christian beliefs – including a commitment to provide their workers with medical benefits.

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But they argue that the Obamacare contraception requirement forces them to pay for birth-control methods that are incompatible with their faith. The mandate requires them to choose between adhering to their Catholic beliefs or paying the Internal Revenue Service $19 million in annual fines.

The ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals marks the third decision by a federal appeals court in an ongoing legal battle by more than 50 companies challenging the Obamacare contraception mandate on religious grounds.

So far two appeals courts have upheld the contraception mandate, while a third has agreed to a corporation’s request to block it.

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The appeals-court split makes it likely that the US Supreme Court will eventually take up the issue.

The three-judge panel ruled that Mr. Kennedy and other members of his family cannot challenge the contraception mandate because it imposes a requirement on their corporations rather than on them personally.

After eliminating the Kennedys from the litigation, the court went on to rule that the lawsuit could not proceed on behalf of Autocam because a for-profit corporation is not a person capable of exercising the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

“The decision to comply with the mandate falls on Autocam, not the Kennedys,” the court said. “For this reason, the Kennedys cannot bring their claims in their individual capacities under [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)], nor can Autocam assert the Kennedys’ claims on their behalf.”

The court next addressed whether RFRA protects a corporation from government infringement of religious rights. The Sixth Circuit panel noted that RFRA established a right to sue for any “person” whose religious exercise has been burdened.

“We agree with the government that Autocam is not a ‘person’ capable of ‘religious exercise’ as intended by RFRA,” the panel said.

The appeals court said that if it agreed with lawyers for Autocam, such a ruling would “lead to a significant expansion of the scope of the rights the Free Exercise Clause protected.”

The court noted that the Supreme Court has recognized that sole proprietors enjoy the right to free exercise of religion. But it said the high court had “never recognized similar rights on behalf of corporations pursuing secular ends for profit.”

Lawyers for Autocam argued that the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that First Amendment free-speech protections apply to corporations. The free exercise of religion clause is also found in the First Amendment and should also apply to corporations, they said.

The appeals court rejected the argument. There was prior case law supporting the free-speech decision, the panel said, but no similar body of law supporting the view that a for-profit corporation could be deemed a “person” under RFRA.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the panel’s decision.

“Religious liberty is a fundamental right, and everyone should be free to practice their beliefs as they see fit,” Brigitte Amiri of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said in a statement.

“However, companies cannot break the law by withholding coverage for health services just because they have a religious objection,” Ms. Amiri said. “Nearly every woman uses contraception at some point in her life. This law ensures employers do not discriminate against their workers by making it difficult for them to obtain the care they need.”

The case is Autocam Corp. v. Sebelius (12-2673).

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