A Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker became the latest employer to sue claiming the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on contraception coverage violates its religious exercise rights.
Conestoga Wood Specialties is based in Lancaster County and employees 950 people in locations across the country, both Mennonites and non-Mennonites. According to reports, the business claims it would be “sinful and immoral for the company to participate in, pay for, facilitate or otherwise support any contraception” that would have the effect of an abortion. And because it is not a religious employer it does not qualify for the exemption from coverage. Therefore, the suit argues, the federal court must block the mandate or else the business faces bankruptcy.
This is believed to be the first lawsuit to challenge the contraception mandate filed by a Mennonite-owned company and joins the over thirty other challenges to the contraception mandate currently snaking their way through federal courts across the country. And like all the others, this suit will hinge on whether a federal court believes it is appropriate for business owners to force their religious beliefs on their employees all in the name of religious freedom.
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Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggests the next president is going to have a couple of U.S. Supreme Court nominations to make, which means the Court could be effectively up for grabs depending on this election’s outcome.
This summer, the Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits who object to providing contraception to try and find some kind of compromise. While they hammer one out, a University of Notre Dame student has asked a federal appeals court to let her join in the litigation, to fight the university’s stance of trying to deny access to contraception coverage.
Florida officials have not yet appealed a federal district court ruling blocking a law that would have prevented Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood reproductive health care centers. The law would also mandate a state regulator review of patient records from half of the approximately 70,000 abortions in the state each year.
An Ohio appeals court ruled a Cleveland abortion clinic can move forward with its lawsuit challenging requirements that prohibit public hospitals from entering into transfer agreements with clinics, along with another requirement that mandates providers to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion.
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.