News Law and Policy

Legal Challenges to Contraception Mandate Now Focus on Compromise for Religiously Affiliated Employers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A host of new lawsuits, including a class-action challenge, look to take down the Obama administration's compromise rule for religiously affiliated nonprofits.

A handful of challenges to the contraception benefit in Obamacare by secular, for-profit businesses have landing before the Supreme Court. Now conservatives are re-focusing their energies on the mandate’s exemption for religious employers, filing a host of new lawsuits against the Obama administration’s final compromise rule for religiously affiliated nonprofits.

On Tuesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order that operates assisted living facilities. According to the allegations in the lawsuit, the order does not qualify for the religious exemption, which means that it would have to provide insurance coverage for contraception to its employees. But the order does qualify as a religiously affiliated nonprofit and falls under the compromise offered by the Obama administration. For those groups, contraception is covered separately with insurers picking up the upfront costs of those policies. That means that religiously affiliated nonprofits don’t bear any cost for coverage, nor do they have to deal with administering plans that provide such coverage.

But according to the Becket Fund, which hopes to bring the suit as a class action on behalf of hundreds of Catholic nonprofits, that compromise does not go far enough. “The Sisters should obviously be exempted as ‘religious employers,’ but the government has refused to expand its definition,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket Fund senior counsel and Little Sisters lead counsel. “These women just want to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates their work. The money they collect should be used to care for the poor like it always has—and not to pay the IRS.”

While the complaint puts forward nearly identical claims as the others challenging the mandate, Little Sisters’ legal challenge is unique and is the first to try and gain class-action status.

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Meanwhile, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a suit challenging the birth control benefit on behalf of four Oklahoma Christian universities: Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Oklahoma Baptist University, and Mid-America Christian University. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma argues that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the First and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

According to the suit, the final version of the regulations “conscripts the Universities into the government’s scheme” by “forcing them to obtain an insurer or third-party claims administrator” and “submit a form that specifically causes that insurer or third-party administrator to arrange payment for the objectionable drugs, so that such coverage will apply to the Universities’ own employees as a direct consequence of their employment with the Universities and of their participation in the health insurance benefits the Universities provide them.” In other words, the very fact that employers have to provide coverage should be found unconstitutional, the colleges claim.

In a statement released with the filing of the suit, Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper said the school joined the lawsuit because “[w]e believe all women should have the religious freedom to not pay for a drug they find immoral and will never use. We are filing suit because we believe God is God and the government is not.”

Under the Obama administration’s compromise, insurance companies pick up the expense of contraception coverage for religiously affiliated nonprofits.

“Christian colleges should remain free to operate according to the beliefs that define them,” said ADF Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor in a statement in connection with the suit. “This mandate leaves religious employers with no real choice: you must either comply and abandon your religious freedom and conscience, or resist and be taxed for your faith. If religious convictions mean nothing in this context, there is no stopping what the government can ultimately do.”

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hints at More Supreme Court Retirements

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dishes on the last Supreme Court term and hints the next president may have more than one justice to appoint.

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.

Anti-choice protesters will be descending on Wichita, Kansas, this week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy clinic sieges.

A state judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) against Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky for purportedly performing abortions without license.

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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.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued to block an Indiana law requiring that a patient getting an abortion must have an ultrasound 18 hours before the procedure.

Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters in Wisconsin are urging lawmakers to repeal the state’s admitting privileges requirement.

Anti-choice lawmakers in Texas plan to try to require aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated in an attempt to add additional emotional burden and administrative expense to the procedure.

Free speech for whom, exactly? The man who posted the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling has been reportedly arrested on charges of assault and battery.