SCOTUS To Hear Challenge to ACA’s Contraceptive Coverage Rules
On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear several cases challenging an accommodation to federal contraceptive coverage rules for not-for-profits that hold themselves out as religious and oppose contraception, the New York Times reports (Liptak, New York Times, 11/6).
The case will be heard in early 2016, and a ruling will be issued before June ends (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 11/6).
The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act, require most employers to offer contraceptive coverage to their workers. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and not-for-profits that hold themselves out as religious are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage for their employees (California Healthline, 9/18).
Religiously affiliated not-for-profits that oppose contraception have challenged the rules in federal appeals courts throughout the U.S. According to the Washington Post, most appeals courts have dismissed the challenges, citing the accommodation (Barnes, Washington Post, 11/6).
For example, writing in a unanimous ruling for a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last November, Judge Cornelia Pillard said, "All plaintiffs must do to opt out is express what they believe and seek what they want via a letter or two-page form." She added, "The accommodation requires as little as it can from the objectors while still serving the government's compelling interests" (New York Times, 11/6).
However, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September ruled against the accommodation, saying the federal government cannot force not-for-profits that hold themselves out as religious to comply with the requirements. The conflicting rulings mean the Supreme Court could review the issue (California Healthline, 9/18).
Seven cases challenging the rules have been granted an appeal by the Supreme Court, though the high court consolidated the seven challenges into a single case, which will likely be referred to as Zubik v. Burwell, according to the Post. The seven cases granted an appeal include:
- Geneva College v. Burwell;
- Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell;
- Priests for Life v. Department of HHS;
- Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Burwell;
- Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell;
- Texas Baptist University v. Burwell and Zubik.
In hearing the appeal, the high court will consider whether the rules, with the accommodation, violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141), which requires the government to provide a "compelling reason" for measures that "substantially burden" religious beliefs. Further, under RFRA, the government must also demonstrate that the measure in question is the least burdensome method of reaching the its underlying goal (Washington Post, 11/6).
The Supreme Court will also consider whether the third-party administrators operated by religiously affiliated organizations are required to follow the federal rules. However, the justices will not review whether exemptions for houses of worship discriminate against groups that are not afforded such an exemption (Haberkorn, Politico, 11/6).
Plaintiff, Government Arguments
According to the Los Angeles Times, the challengers argue that notifying the government of their opposition to providing contraception is in violation of their religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has emphasized that the religiously affiliated not-for-profits are not required to provide contraception if it violates their religious beliefs. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli noted that the accommodation "relieves the employer of any obligation to provide, arrange or pay for the coverage to which it objects" (Los Angeles Times, 11/6). Further, according to Verrilli, at issue in the case is whether RFRA "entitles petitioners not only to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage themselves but also to prevent the government from arranging for third parties to provide separate coverage to the affected women."
In addition, the government has also argued that the religiously affiliated not-for-profits should not be eligible for the same exemption as houses of worship. According to the government, houses of worship are more likely than non-for-profits to employ individuals who hold the same beliefs as the employer (Washington Post, 11/6).
Noting that seven courts of appeal have agreed with the government, Josh Earnest, press secretary at the White House, said the administration is confident that "the policy we have in place appropriately balances the need of millions of Americans to have access to birth control, while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in the Constitution" (Washington Post, 11/6).
Louise Melling, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "We fight every day to protect the constitutional right to freedom of religion, but that right does not extend to imposing your beliefs on others and discriminating against them." She added, "If the court rules in favor of the employers in these cases, women will lose a benefit guaranteed by law and will literally be paying for their employers’ beliefs" (New York Times, 11/6).
Separately, National Women's Law Center Vice President Gretchen Borchelt said, "It's unfair and harmful for some employers and schools to use their religious beliefs to deny women vital healthcare that makes them more economically secure" (Los Angeles Times, 11/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.