Analysis Law and Policy

Latest Seventh Circuit Decision on Birth Control Benefit Paves Another Path to SCOTUS

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Another appellate court weighs in on the birth control benefit, and in doing so makes clearer the issues the Supreme Court will be asked to resolve. But a powerful dissenting opinion underscores the real issues.

Just days before the Obama administration announced new rules concerning the birth control benefit, a split 7th Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction allowing another for-profit business to opt out, putting to rest any lingering doubts that the issue will eventually land before the Supreme Court.

The Grote Family owns and operates Grote Industries, a for-profit business located in Madison, Indiana. Grote manufactures vehicle safety and lighting systems. The business employs 1,148 workers over a variety of locations. It’s a privately-held business with a self-funded insurance plan. The Grote’s are Catholic and claim to operate their business according to the “precepts of their faith.” This includes adhering to the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding “the moral wrongfulness of abortifacient drugs, contraception, and sterilization” and denying their employees contraception coverage in the company’s plan. When faced with complying with the birth control benefit the Grotes sued to block the mandate and enjoin the Obama administration from enforcing its penalty provisions. The district court denied their request, but in a 2-1 decision the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court pending appeal, which means for now, the Grotes do not have to comply.

What’s noteworthy about the decision in this case is not the outcome, but the detailed and well-reasoned dissent crafted by Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner. In examining the question of what it means for the Grotes to run a for-profit business to run according to the precepts of their faith, Rovner first points out that the business itself has “stated no religious goals as part of its mission, it does not elect its employees, vendors, or customers on the basis of their religious beliefs, and it does not require its employees to conform their behavior to any particular religious precepts.” Because, Circuit Judge Rovner reasons, there is simply nothing from the perspective of the company that demonstrates any religious beliefs, let alone sincerely-held ones that belong to the company, it is impossible to imagine the company, as distinct from its owners the Grotes, has any religious interests or rights to assert at all.

Breaking down the distinction between the owners and the company even more, Circuit Judge Rovner states what should be obvious: the owners do not provide the contraception coverage, the company does. Even in self-funded health plans like the ones offered by Grote Industries, those premium payments come out of the company’s bank account and not the owners. The Grotes are simply not at liberty to “treat the company’s bank accounts as their own” unless they are also comfortable waiving the personal liability protections afforded to them under corporate law as well. The Grotes, Circuit Judge Rovner points out, are not in any way personally compelled to engage in any activity they disapprove of, they do not have to approve or endorse contraceptive use, and can even actively discourage the use of contraception by others.

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If we accept the Grotes’ argument then we must also consider whether their religious interests are burdened anytime an employee uses his or her Grotes Industries paycheck, or money from a health-care reimbursement account, to pay for contraception outright. That’s because the Grotes’ argument ignores completely that health insurance is an element of employee compensation. How an employee independently chooses to use that insurance is then arguably no different, from the law’s perspective, from the ways in which that employee decides to spend her take-home pay and that analysis does not change regardless if a health plan is self-funded or not.

This argument will be at the heart of any case the Supreme Court chooses to review on the birth control mandate: to what extent does an individual get to use their individual religious belief as a shield from obeying the law. In almost any other context the courts have been unanimous in holding business can’t use religion as a shield like this. Landlords have had to rent housing to unmarried couples despite personal religious objections to co-habtitation for example. This was, until the political controversy surrounding Obamacare, considered well-settled law. Clearly conservatives believe they have a political opening with the birth control mandate, and a sympathetic Supreme Court, but it’s worth remembering they thought the same thing with Obamacare generally and ultimately lost.

News Media

Study: Politicians Dominate Nightly News Reports on Birth Control

Nicole Knight Shine

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

When it comes to asking experts to weigh in on birth control, the nation’s three major TV networks favor political figures over doctors, according to a forthcoming paper in the journal Contraception.

Analyzing nightly news segments on contraception on ABC, CBS, and NBC between 2010 to 2014, the authors found that few broadcasts included medical professionals (11 percent) or health researchers (4 percent). Politicians, however, dominated coverage, appearing as sources 40 percent of the time, followed by advocates (25 percent), the general public (25 percent), and Catholic Church leaders (16 percent).

Sixty-nine percent of news segments on birth control included no medical information, the authors found.

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

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“Health professionals are an untapped resource for ensuring that the most up-to-date, scientific information is available to the public watching the news,” Moniz said in an email to Rewire.

An estimated 24 million Americans watch nightly news, making it an “influential information source,” the authors note.

And although nearly half of pregnancies in the United States each year are unplanned, news segments did not emphasize highly effective contraception like IUDs, the researchers found. Instead, emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning-after pill, warranted the most coverage, at 18 percent, followed by the daily oral contraceptive pill, at 16 percent.

The researchers’ analysis of 116 nightly news segments coincided with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act by President Obama and continued through the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which carved out the right for private corporations to deny birth control coverage to employees on religious grounds.

“We found that when the network television media covers contraception,” the authors observed, “they do so within a largely political frame and emphasize the controversial aspects of contraception, while paying less attention to health aspects and content experts.”

The paper was authored by five researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the Veterans Affairs Center for Clinical Management and Research in Michigan; and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The study builds on earlier work exposing media bias and gender disparities in reproductive health coverage.

In June, an analysis of prime-time news programs on cable networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC by media watchdog group Media Matters for America found that 40 percent of guests on all three networks made anti-choice statements or identified as anti-choice, compared with 17 percent of guests who made pro-choice statements or identified as reproductive rights advocates. On Fox, guests made a total of 705 inaccurate statements about abortion care over a 14-month period.

The nightly news study follows a report earlier this year on gender disparities by the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, indicating that male journalists dominate reproductive health coverage, with bylines on 67 percent of all presidential election stories related to abortion and contraception. Female journalists, in comparison, wrote 37 percent of articles about reproductive issues.

News Law and Policy

GOP Pushes LGBTQ Discrimination on Pulse Shooting Anniversary

Christine Grimaldi

A business or other organization drawing on taxpayer money and acting on those views, for instance, could deny child care, health care, and retirement benefits to an employee with a same-sex spouse without penalty from the federal government.

On the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, congressional Republicans pushed legislation that would shield individuals and groups that receive federal funds from penalties for discriminating against LGBTQ people.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee Tuesday debated the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). Republicans have proposed multiple official and unofficial versions of FADA. All of them share a common purpose: Protect recipients of federal dollars that act on their “religious belief or moral conviction” against same-sex marriage or sex outside of marriage. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation have praised FADA for building on broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and other so-called religious liberty bills. (The legal website Justia breaks down the similarities and differences between RFRA and FADA.)

A business or other organization drawing on taxpayer money and acting on those views, for instance, could deny child care, health care, and retirement benefits to an employee with a same-sex spouse without penalty from the federal government, Democratic lawmakers opposing the bill said at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Employers could even refuse to provide time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for an ill same-sex spouse.

That possibility troubled Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. “This is not the kind of dignity and respect that the Supreme Court spoke so eloquently of in the decision granting the freedom to marry nationwide last June,” Obergefell told lawmakers.

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If enacted into law, FADA would also empower those with religious objections to be able to turn away LGBTQ people seeking services such as housing or medical care, experts testified before the committee.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee’s ranking member, fellow Democrats, and 80 civil rights and other groups petitioned Republicans to reschedule the FADA hearing, to no avail. More than 3,000 faith and clergy last year leaders voiced their opposition to FADA, he said.

“To say that this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year,” Cummings said as he opened the hearing. That evening, House Democrats and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus gathered on the capitol steps for a vigil honoring the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-IN) introduced the House’s bill (H.R. 2802), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), the identical Senate counterpart (S. 1598). FADA has little to no chance of becoming law this year given President Barack Obama’s increasingly outspoken support for the LGBTQ community, indicating that he would veto any such legislation that somehow managed to advance in the House and Senate. A Mississippi judge recently blocked a similar state law from taking effect.

House Democratic aides provided Rewire with a revised FADA draft that they said Labrador has been circulating since last Friday that goes even further.

Lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing discussed the revised draft, which they said would apply to all businesses—both for-profit and nonprofit. This draft permits discrimination against same-sex and opposite-sex couples except by federal employees acting in the scope of their employment and for-profit federal contractors acting in the scope of a government contract, they added.

David Stacy, the government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, the prominent LGBTQ civil rights group, described these exemptions, and others for hospital visitations and medical decisions, as concessions that don’t mask FADA’s underlying discrimination.

“That all being said, the bill has really significant problems that remain,” he said in an interview.

Columbia School of Law professor Katherine Franke underscored that FADA would go beyond permitting discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and include unmarried parents and heterosexual couples.

“A broad reading of this bill would create a safe harbor from penalties associated with an enormous range of behavior that is otherwise illegal or prohibited by federal law and regulation,” Franke said in her testimony before the committee.

Under FADA, she said, the federal government could not deny Title X funding to a health-care clinic that provides family planning services only to patients that can furnish a marriage license. Nor could the government deny a Violence Against Women Act grant to a domestic violence shelter that required residents to pledge their opposition to marriage equality or extramarital relations, she added.

Schools that accept federal funds could fire teachers suspected of having premarital sex, the Huffington Post reported. NARAL Pro-Choice America highlighted the “legislation that lets your boss fire you for having premarital sex (yes, really)” in a scathing memo sent to reporters.

“Are you a single mother whose landlord doesn’t believe in sex outside of marriage? Under this law, your landlord could refuse to house you,” the memo said. “Do you work at a company where your boss doesn’t believe in premarital sex? Under this law, if your boss found out about your private life, they could fire you.”