News Law and Policy

Obama Administration Defends Birth Control Benefit in Supreme Court Response

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Affordable Care Act's requirement that insurance cover contraception equally does not infringe on religious rights, the administration argued.

On Friday, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court not to extend an injunction granted to a handful of Catholic business that exempts them from complying with the birth control benefit provision of the Affordable Care Act.

The request was part of the administration’s response to an emergency petition filed to the Supreme Court in the case of Little Sisters of the Poor, one of a host of new lawsuits brought by religiously affiliated nonprofits challenging the “religious accommodation” to the benefit. Late on New Year’s Eve, just before the benefit was to take effect, Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted a limited and temporary injunction for the Little Sisters plaintiffs and gave the Obama administration until 10:00 a.m. Friday to respond before considering whether the injunction should be extended while the case continues in the lower courts. Several other challenges by religiously affiliated nonprofits are also pending in federal district and appellate courts.

The dispute centers on the “self-certification” provision of the religious exemption. Under that requirement, groups that qualify for the religious exemption from the contraception mandate must fill out a form that certifies they are a religious nonprofit organization and object to the requirement. Completing that form, the groups claim, infringes on their religious liberty rights.

Justice Sotomayor could decide the matter on her own, or she could refer it to the whole Court for consideration. There is no timeframe for the Supreme Court to make its decision.

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Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.

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.