Analysis Law and Policy

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Muddies Water in Contraception Mandate Litigation

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A ruling Friday by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals highlights the political nature of the fight over the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act.

On Friday, a divided D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Obama administration in yet another challenge to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, finding that two Catholic brothers can individually challenge the law but that their businesses lack standing to do so.

Francis and Philip Gilardi own Freshway Foods, a 400-person secular, for-profit produce company based in Ohio. Devout Catholics, they argued the contraception mandate violated their religious liberties as individuals and the religious exercise rights of their business. A lower court denied their request for an injunction blocking enforcement of the mandate; Friday’s decision reversed that denial, in part, and sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration. The 2-1 majority found that Freshway, as a secular organization, cannot exercise religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and therefore lacks standing to challenge the mandate. But a different majority of judges found that the Gilardis as individuals could bring a claim under the RFRA.

The majority opinion was authored by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who is among the most conservative judges on the federal bench. Brown’s opinions demonstrate a history of hostility toward reproductive privacy claims, and this is not her first look at the issue of contraceptive equity. While a justice on the California Supreme Court, Brown was the sole dissent in a decision that found Catholic Charities was in violation of California’s contraception prescriptive equity statute by failing to provide its employees insurance coverage for contraception. In her dissent, Brown said that if female employees felt discriminated against by Catholic Charities’ refusal to provide insurance coverage for contraception, they should “move to more congenial employment.”

Brown’s opinion Friday demonstrated the same disdain for equality in employment benefits and hinted that just because the court was not going to go so far as to confer First Amendment religious exercise rights to corporations in this opinion, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. “But that the Court has never seriously considered such a claim by a secular corporation or other organizational entity is not to say it never will,” Brown wrote.

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Brown also rejected extending Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission so far as to find those rights free exercise rights, an extension adopted by the Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby. But the Supreme Court is currently considering taking up the Hobby Lobby case, so the potential for extending Citizens United so far as to find constitutional corporate religious exercise rights remains. “Perhaps Appellant’s constitutional arithmetic, Citizens United plus the Free Exercise Clause equals a corporate free exercise rights, will ultimately prevail,” Brown wrote. “But we must be mindful that Citizens United represents the culmination of decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence recognizing that all corporations speak. When it comes to the free exercise of religion, however, the Court has only indicated that people and churches worship. As for secular corporations the Court has been all but silent.”

But if Brown and her colleagues were unwilling to find explicit corporate religious exercise rights, they seemed willing to imply them by allowing the Gilardi brothers to move forward with their challenge individually, claiming that if “a company is owned and controlled by a few like-minded individuals who share the same religious values and run the company pursuant to those values,” the company then serves as the owners’ proxy or surrogate. This “pass-through” theory, in which corporations are merely vessels by which their owners express their personal beliefs, is just the formula for a religiously conservative libertarian like Brown. “The burden on religious exercise does not occur at the point of contraception purchase; instead, it occurs when a company’s owners fill the basket of goods and services that constitute a health care plan,” wrote Brown. “In other words, the Gilardis are burdened when they are pressured to choose between violating their religious beliefs in managing their selected plan or paying onerous penalties.”

If Brown’s distinction between the corporation and its owners sounds meaningless, that’s because it is. Brown characterizes the Obama administration’s argument that free exercise rights are individual freedoms and thus not transferable to corporations as “perplexing and troubling,” despite a history of Supreme Court precedent that clearly states businesses may not use religious liberty claims to shield themselves from civil rights laws. And her reasoning highlights an important undercurrent to the ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: the fight over President Obama’s judicial nominees. Republicans insist the D.C. Circuit vacancies do not need to be filled, but in reality they see blocking nominees to the court as the clearest path to maintaining a conservative edge on the nation’s second most powerful court.

The Gilardi case is one of more than 70 across the country currently pending challenging the contraception mandate. In similar challenges by secular, for-profit businesses, the Third Circuit and the Sixth Circuit previously ruled that a for-profit company cannot exercise religion while the Tenth Circuit, in contrast, held that the rule substantially burdened the religious exercise of craft supply chain Hobby Lobby. The Roberts Court has been asked to review those decisions and is expected to enter into the legal battle as early as this term.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Analysis Law and Policy

The Supreme Court Could Give Religiously Affiliated Employers Even More Room to Discriminate

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A series of cases working their way through the courts could expand which businesses get a pass for offering employees discriminatory health and retirement benefits.

You may remember the Little Sisters of the Poor—that group of earnest nuns who challenged the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters, along with dozens of other religiously affiliated nonprofits, have continuously argued that the act of completing a form to be legally excused from complying with the law substantially burdens their religious rights.

Well, the Little Sisters remain tied up in litigation with the Obama administration over birth control, nondiscriminatory insurance coverage, and their religious objections to providing for both. But there’s more at stake here. To be clear, the Sisters are intent on doing everything they can to block comprehensive insurance coverage for their employees, and block third parties from providing it to them as well. But buried in litigation footnotes is a provision of employee benefits law that, if the Sisters and other religiously affiliated organizations get their way, will solidify another pass for discriminatory corporate practices beyond contraception coverage alone.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is the federal law governing employee benefit plans, including retirement accounts and health insurance. Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are charged with ensuring ERISA compliance, which, as you can imagine, makes ERISA a prime target for conservatives who already hate “big government.”

Employer plans governed by ERISA have a few requirements that particularly draw conservative ire. One mandates that employer-sponsored retirement plans meet certain minimum funding levels by the employer. This is to help those plans be meaningful ways for employees to save for retirement, without putting the entire burden on those workers. Another provision forbids those plans from discriminating in benefits, such as matching a higher percentage of a male employee’s retirement contributions than a female one’s, or providing comprehensive health insurance coverage for men but not women. The ACA’s birth control benefit draws upon this theory.

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However, not all employers are required to follow ERISA. In particular, the statute exempts “church plans” from its requirements. ERISA defines church plans as those “established and maintained … for its employees … by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax under section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Church plans also include those plans maintained by an organization “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” The rationale behind the church plan exemption is similar to the rationale behind most religious or ministerial exemptions to other nondiscrimination laws: Religious orders and institutions like churches and synagogues will generally employ people who follow the same religious tenets as they do because those organizations are engaged in spiritual outreach as part of their “business.”

That prohibition on ERISA governing “church plans” is also incorporated into the ACA.

Historically, organizations like the Little Sisters have had a regulatory pass when it came to maintaining retirement plans and insurance coverage that are either underfunded, discriminatory, or both. That’s because both the DOL and the IRS have been generous in their determination of how they interpret “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” And if those agencies determine that an organization has a “church plan,” that, in turn, means it won’t be subjected to a tax penalty for not complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.

Given the explosion of religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and nursing homes, however, the scope of what does and does not qualify as a church plan has become an increasingly important issue. As religiously affiliated employers began to grow well beyond employing people of similar tenets, away from their ministerial core and into marketplace competition with secular, for-profit businesses, it has made less and less sense to allow those employers a pass to discriminate under ERISA.

At least that’s the argument advanced in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the scope of the church plan exemption under ERISA. Those lawsuits include one against Dignity Health Care, the Catholic-affiliated hospital system facing separate lawsuits related to failing to offer comprehensive reproductive health care at its hospitals. According to the allegations in the complaint, Dignity repeatedly underfunded its retirement plan in violation of ERISA. Dignity responded by arguing its plans were church plans and not subject to ERISA oversight.

Neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bought Dignity’s argument, holding there was no way that when Congress created the church plan exception, it intended the exemption to stretch as far as to shield the country’s fifth-largest health-care employer from regulatory oversight.

That question presented in the Dignity case—of just how broadly that exemption extends—could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The Roberts Court is considering a pair of cases with this exact issue at their center. Both involve religiously affiliated hospitals, and both have appellate court decisions ruling that organizations like Dignity, which are not actually churches nor actually maintained by religious orders, may not qualify for the church plan exemption.

Which brings us back to the Little Sisters, on whose cases these organizations will undoubtedly base some of their own arguments. The Little Sisters do have a church plan. And it should mean that they will never have to comply with the birth control benefit anyway—which would give them no standing to challenge the ACA’s accommodation. But this is not the argument the Little Sisters and their attorneys want the courts or the public to hear. Instead, the litigation has focused on whether or not completing the form for the birth control accommodation would be a substantial burden for the nuns, despite the fact that at this point under ERISA, there is no question that the federal government could penalize the Little Sisters for refusing to comply with the contraception benefit.

However, the Little Sisters are more than just a group of nuns. They own and operate facilities that employ and serve others. The DOL and IRS have, to date, agreed that the Little Sisters benefits plan is in fact a church plan. But that is in part because without switching plan administrators, the question of whether or not their employee benefits package still qualifies for the exemption has not arisen again. If and when the Little Sisters do switch plans or administrators, the status of their benefits exemption will come up.

At some point during oral arguments in March in Zubik v. Burwell, the conglomerate of cases challenging the accommodation process to the birth control benefit, the fact that the Little Sisters had a church plan and would never be subject to having to comply with the benefit did come up. Paul Clement, who represented the nuns, skillfully dodged the question of whether there was a church plan issue for the Little Sisters. Instead of acknowledging that fact—one even established in the record as an assumption the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was making earlier in the litigation to move the case along—Clement assured the justices the church plan wasn’t really something the Court needed to concern itself with at the moment.

Maybe that’s because Clement and the nuns were hoping that if nobody noticed the pass given Little Sisters in their challenge to the birth control benefit, nobody would notice when hospitals and nursing homes also argue for the right to provide discriminatory retirement benefits and cite Zubik for their authority to do so. Maybe they didn’t know about the fight brewing in the appellate courts over which enormous corporate entities are shielded from regulatory nondiscrimination laws like provisions in ERISA and the ACA.

That seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?

While it may be dry as toast, the church plan exemption under ERISA is critically important. As we’ve seen throughout the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, when employers are allowed to opt out, the effect disproportionately falls on poor women and women of color. And the wages offered to hospital and nursing home workers? They hardly are the kind to lift a person up to more stable financial footing. Which is all another way to say that conservatives’ assertions that institutions like Dignity Health fulfill some spiritual mission and should therefore be treated like a church are all smoke and bluster. Instead, these institutions want cover for ongoing attempts to nickel-and-dime their own workers and to discriminate, based on religious beliefs, when it comes to how and whom these institutions serve. And they’re hoping the Roberts Court will give it to them this next term.

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