Federal Judge Rules Obama Administration Didn’t Go Far Enough to Accommodate Opponents of Birth Control Benefit

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Federal Judge Rules Obama Administration Didn’t Go Far Enough to Accommodate Opponents of Birth Control Benefit

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal judge in Florida ruled Ave Maria University did not have to comply with the Obama administration's latest accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofits that object to coverage of contraception in insurance plans.

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

The Obama administration’s latest efforts to appease religious conservatives who object to insurance coverage for contraception don’t go far enough, ruled a federal judge in Florida last week.

U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the contraception coverage requirement against Ave Maria University, a Roman Catholic College in Ave Maria, Florida, a planned community founded in part by Domino’s Pizza founder and Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan.

The order is the first to block the administration’s most recent efforts to amend the process for religiously affiliated nonprofits to opt out of providing contraception coverage in their employee health insurance plans following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Wheaton College.

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That case, involving an evangelical college in Illinois, called into question the form developed to allow religiously affiliated nonprofits to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage benefit by ruling that completing the government’s paperwork unduly burdened Wheaton College’s religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The Obama administration, in response to that decision and the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell that closely-held corporations were entitled to some kind of exemption from the coverage requirement, announced in August it would issue new rules designed to modify the law to fit the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Those new rules state that religiously affiliated nonprofits that want the accommodation need only notify the Department of Health and Human Services in writing that they are claiming a religious exemption, and provide the government identification of its health coverage plan for employees and contact information to the insurer operating the plan so the administration could step in and coordinate coverage for those employees who wish to have it.

But according to the religiously affiliated nonprofits challenging the contraception benefit, any act, no matter how remote, that facilities its employees from being able to access contraception is tantamount to providing that contraception directly and therefore a violation of their religious beliefs.

Instead, religious conservatives charge they should qualify for the same exemption from coverage provided to churches and synagogues that would leave employees who want or need access to insurance coverage for contraception on their own.

Moody, in comparing the previous accommodation process with the latest tweak, ruled the distinction between the two processes “is not so significant” to justify making Ave Maria comply now.

Moody’s order will remain in effect while Ave Maria’s challenge proceeds to trial. The Obama administration could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The Roberts Court could once again step into the dispute over the sufficiency of the accommodation process. Attorneys for the University of Notre Dame have asked the Roberts Court to overturn an appellate court ruling requiring them to comply with the accommodation process in order to avoid offering contraceptive coverage for university students and employees.

The Obama administration’s response is due to the Roberts Court later this week.