Religious freedom? Who's zoomin' who? As I noted in a piece published last night and now confirmed by further comments from representatives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the far right uterine police are aiming to exclude everyone from contraceptive coverage, not just religious institutions.
On the Diane Rehms Show on Wednesday, February 8th, for example, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted that:
“David Stevens… the CEO of a group called the Christian Medical Association… [b]elieves that one of the problems with this rule now is that it should be expanded not just to Catholic hospitals or other big institutions, but that individual employers should be allowed to say, no coverage of contraceptions for their individual employees.”
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And now, Anthony Picarillo, general counsel of the USCCB confirms that this is indeed the goal. USA Today reports that a compromise is “no consolation to Catholic leaders.”
The White House is “all talk, no action” on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular,” Picarello said. “We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed.”
That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.”
“If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.
Which of course is what they want. To remove it for everyone.
I’m waiting to see what the members of the Bishops’ Boys Club, i.e. E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, Morning Joe, and other men who can’t stop making the case against women whenever the USCCB beckons, will say about this one regarding “religious freedom.”
Can we discuss health care, public health, and women’s rights now, boys?
Two years ago, 17-year-old Rosa was raped as she fled north from her home country in Central America to the United States. Placed in a Catholic shelter in Florida, the teen learned she was pregnant, and told shelter officials that if she couldn’t end the pregnancy, she’d kill herself. She was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Upon her release, the facility in which she’d been originally placed rejected her because of her desire for an abortion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday. So did another. Both, reads the lawsuit, were federal contractors paid to care for unaccompanied minors like Rosa.
Rosa’s story is one in a series sketched out in a 16-page complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees—including nearly $20 million over two years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion. The grantees are paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house and care for young refugees.
The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, amounts to a fresh test of the degree to which Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups can claim exemptions from federal laws and regulations on religious grounds.
“Religious liberties do not include the ability to impose your beliefs on a vulnerable population and deny them legal health care,” said Jennifer Chou, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a phone interview with Rewire. “The government is delegating responsibility … to these religiously affiliated organizations who are then not acting in the best interest of these young people.”
Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the HHS, which includes the ORR, told Rewire via email that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.
Escaping turmoil and abuse in their home countries, young refugees—predominantly from Central America—are fleeing to the United States, with 33,726 arriving in 2015, down from 57,496 the year before. About one-third are girls. As many as eight in ten girls and women who cross the border are sexually assaulted; it is unknown how many arrive in need of abortion care.
The federal ORR places unaccompanied minors with organizations that are paid to offer temporary shelter and a range of services, including reproductive health care, while the youths’ applications for asylum are pending. But documents the ACLU obtained indicate that some groups are withholding thathealth care on religious grounds and rejecting youths who request abortion care.
The 1997 “Flores agreement” and ORR’s contracts with grantees, which the ACLU cites in its lawsuit, require referrals to “medical care providers who offer pregnant [unaccompanied immigrant minors] the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding prenatal care and delivery; infant care, foster care, or adoption; and pregnancy termination.”
In 2016, the federal government awarded 56 grants to 30 organizations to provide care to unaccompanied minors, including 11 that the ACLU claims impose religious restrictions on reproductive health care.
In one case, ORR officials struggled to find accommodations for 14-year-old Maria, who wanted to end her pregnancy, according to the complaint. An ORR official wrote, according to a document the ACLU obtained, that the agency would have liked to transfer Maria to Florida to be near family, but “both of the shelters in Florida are faith-based and will not take the child to have this procedure,” meaning an abortion.
In another, the complaint reads, 16-year-old Zoe was placed with Youth for Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia, where she learned she was pregnant. She asked for abortion counseling, which was delayed nearly two weeks, the complaint says. Learning of her decision to end the pregnancy, Youth for Tomorrow asked to transfer Zoe elsewhere because of its abortion prohibition, even though Zoe said she was happy at the shelter.
For vulnerable youths, such transfers represent a form of “secondary trauma,” according to the ACLU’s Chou.
“These women have already endured so much,” she told Rewire. “The process of transferring these youths from shelter to shelter tears them away from their only existing support system in the U.S.”
Federal officials, according to the complaint, were aware that the religious grantees would withhold abortion referrals. In one case, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was awarded more than $8 million between 2013 and 2016, although it stated in its grant application that rape survivors wouldn’t be offered abortion care, but instead permitted to “process the trauma of the rape while also exploring the decision of whether to keep the baby or plan an adoption.”
The lawsuit also claims that a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included language requiring unaccompanied minors who were pregnant to be given information and counseling about pregnancy termination, but the ORR removed that language after the USCCB complained.
The USCCB did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. But in a letter last year to the ORR, the USCCB and five religious groups, including some ORR grantees, wrote they could not facilitate health-care services for unaccompanied minors that run contrary to their beliefs.
The lawsuit is the second the ACLU has filed recently against the federal government over religious privileges.
Last month, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Actsuit demanding that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients have reported being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.
In 2009, the ACLU also sued the federal government for allowing USCCB to impose religious restrictions on a taxpayer-funded reproductive health program for trafficking survivors. In 2012, a district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, and the government appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal later dismissed the case as “moot” because the government did not renew USCCB’s contract.
The Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits to work out a solution to the challenges to the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit. Not surprisingly, the religiously affiliated nonprofits refuse to do so.
In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, the lead case challenging the Obama administration’s process for accommodating religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit. It was apparent then that the remaining eight justices were deadlocked as to whether the process did enough to protect the religious objections of the nursing home operators and university administrators who had launched this latest round of lawsuits.
Hoping to avoid a split decision—which would subject some religiously affiliated nonprofits to penalties if they failed to follow the accommodation process and not others, depending on their appellate court circuit —the justices ordered the government and the religious objectors to try and find a solution both sides could work with and present it to the court via briefing in April. Well, the nonprofits and the Obama administration have filed that first round of briefing. And if the Roberts Court thought the religious objectors were interested in any sort of real solution to the problems posed in their lawsuits, it was mistaken. The negotiating position for the religiously affiliated challengers remains: full exemption from the requirement or bust.
In its order asking for supplemental briefing, the Roberts Court asked parties on both sides to address whether “contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.” According to the nonprofits, “[t]he answer to that question is clear and simple: Yes.”
If only it were that clear and that simple.
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In the remaining 20-plus pages of the nonprofits’ brief, their lawyers set out a variety of options that could, they say, provide seamless contraception coverage while preventing the nonprofits from in any way “facilitating” the sin of providing health insurance plans that include contraception. But the thing is, none of those options are actually accommodations to the ACA’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans cover contraception at no additional cost or co-pay.
One of the religious objectors’ solutions, for example, is to have the government directly require insurance companies to create entirely new and separate contraception-only plans. The companies would then contact plan beneficiaries directly with information about the policy and how to enroll. These separate plans, objectors offer, could take the form of individual insurance policies or of group health plans sponsored by the government.
In other words, one option is for the government to come up with an entirely different regulatory scheme for dealing with contraception altogether. That scheme would apply to religiously affiliated nonprofits and presumably the secular for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby that petitioned the Roberts Court for the very same accommodation now regarded by objectors as too onerous for compliance.
The fact this is one option offered up by the religiously affiliated nonprofits should come as no surprise. It’s right out of the anti-choice playbook with regard to insurance coverage for abortion. As states set up their own insurance exchanges during the implementation of the ACA, anti-choice politicians were quick to put restrictions on the kinds of coverage for abortion that insurance companies could offer in individual or employer-sponsored plans. So far, 10 states ban abortion coverage generally, while 25 ban abortion coverage in their exchanges. In other words, if you happen to live in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, or Utah, you cannot purchase a health insurance plan that covers abortion. At all. Including through your employer. Meanwhile, states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—just to name a few—prevent comprehensive health insurance plans that cover abortion from being sold on their state exchanges.
Do we really think that if this “contraception insurance” plan offered by the religiously affiliated institutions were to become the “solution” to these legal challenges, the result would look any different than it has for insurance coverage for abortion? Hypothetically, broad contraceptive coverage could end across the country, with many states banning the coverage altogether. This, of course, is the exact scenario the Supreme Court is hoping to avoid.
All of the objectors’ “solutions” are, in fact, just other ways of granting exemptions from the birth control benefit. In other words, they seem to be saying, if and when religiously affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, and day care centers can be treated under the law the same way as churches, synagogues, and mosques, then the lawsuits will stop.
That doesn’t sound so much like a compromise as it does a threat.
The Obama administration has until April 20 to respond directly to the petitioners’ arguments. It has already filed its own briefing arguing the process as it stands completely accommodates any religious objections in a way that balances the government’s compelling interest in promoting nondiscriminatory health insurance coverage for employees while respecting the beliefs of those who see contraception as sin.
But perhaps most importantly, the government’s brief argues that any additional tinkering with the accommodation process, rather than a ruling on the merits by the Roberts Court that the current process is sufficient, will only result in many more years of litigation. And it’s a point the petitioners pretty much concede by failing to offer up any workable compromise at all.