News Law and Policy

Notre Dame Once Again Loses Legal Battle Against Birth Control Benefit

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The decision released Tuesday is a strong endorsement of the Obama administration's accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofits that object to providing contraception in health-care plans.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday again rejected claims by the University of Notre Dame that the federal accommodation process to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) substantially burdened the university’s religious rights.

The ACA requires some employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception as part of a package of preventive care services provided to employees at no additional cost or co-pay. The health law includes an exemption for churches and other houses of worship. It also contains an accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofits, like Notre Dame, that are not churches but maintain a religious objection to providing plans with contraception coverage.

That process allows the objecting employers to complete a form that notifies the federal government of their religious objection and triggers a process whereby the insurance company contracts directly with the people who want contraception coverage at no additional cost.

Under the accommodation process, groups like Notre Dame that claim a religious objection to the birth control benefit must simply notify the administration of their objection. The administration then takes on the task of coordinating coverage between insurance providers and those who want contraception coverage.

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Notre Dame and other religiously affiliated nonprofits objected to this requirement, arguing that simply filling out the form to notify its insurance company, or other relevant third parties, violates its religious beliefs by making it complicit in a scheme it finds morally objectionable: providing contraception to university employees and students.

So far federal appeals courts in multiple jurisdictions have rejected those claims which, under most circumstances, would be the end of the road for the legal challenges to the birth control benefit.

The litigation surrounding the birth control benefit has never been like “most circumstances.” Despite relying heavily on the existence of the accommodation process to rule for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby could opt out of the benefit, conservatives on the Roberts Court resurrected the claims of Notre Dame and other nonprofits, prompting appellate courts take a second look at their decisions in light of the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Tuesday’s decision was the first of those opinions to come back following the Roberts Court’s order to reconsider, and it is a strong repudiation of the religiously affiliated nonprofits claims. In a 2-1 decision, a panel of judges from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Notre Dame’s claims that participating in the accommodation process substantially burdened its religious rights.

Judge Richard Posner, writing for the majority, rejected the university’s claims that the Hobby Lobby decision means courts must take at face value claims of religious burden, stating “[a]lthough Notre Dame is the final arbiter of its religious beliefs, it is for the courts to determine whether the law actually forces Notre Dame to act in a way that would violate those beliefs.”

Posner noted that Notre Dame was effectively asking the court to block the university’s insurance provider from contracting with a third party—the Obama administration—to provide contraception coverage.

Unlike Notre Dame, those insurance companies have not raised religious objections to the birth control benefit. They are not even parties to the litigation. “It is irregular, moreover, for a court to be asked to enjoin nonparties,” Posner wrote. “For all we know, Aetna and its subsidiary value the opportunity to provide contraception coverage with generous reimbursement by the federal government.”

“Their business is providing health care, health care administration, and health insurance, and Notre Dame wants unilaterally to exclude them from a possibly lucrative chunk of that business,” said Posner.

Posner also rejected outright Notre Dame’s claims that the government has a myriad of other ways to accomplish its contraception coverage goals, such as directly providing contraception to those employees who want it.

“The very word ‘accommodation’ implies a balance of competing interests; and when we compare the burden on the government or third parties of having to establish some entirely new method of providing contraceptive coverage with the burden on Notre Dame of simply notifying the government that the ball is now in the government’s court, we cannot conclude that Notre Dame has yet established its right to the injunctive relief that it is seeking before trial,” Posner wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge David Hamilton answered the Supreme Court’s request to reconsider its earlier decision in favor of the Obama administration more directly than Posner’s opinion. “The accommodation for religious not-for-profits like Notre Dame played a pivotal role in Hobby Lobby,” Hamilton wrote, “but not in a way that helps Notre Dame in this case.”

Hamilton calls for a trial on the merits where the Notre Dame’s claims can be fully dissected. “Federal courts are not required to treat Notre Dame’s erroneous legal interpretation as beyond their reach—even if that interpretation is also a sincere and religious belief,” wrote Hamilton. “Notre Dame is not entitled to nullify the law’s benefits for others based on this mistake of law, which is the foundation of its claim of a substantial burden.”

The Notre Dame challenge is unique. Of the hundreds of lawsuits filed challenging the contraception benefit, it was the first, and so far only, to include attorneys representing the interests of those most affected by the law’s requirement: students and employees.

Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State intervened in the case on behalf of three anonymous Notre Dame students, saying the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals should stick to its original ruling. Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel at AU, applauded the decision.

”The government has already relieved Notre Dame of any obligation to provide contraception coverage to anyone,” Lipper said. “As a result, the Seventh Circuit correctly concluded that Notre Dame has no right to stop third parties from stepping in to provide that coverage to employees and students. Nothing in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows Notre Dame to control the behavior of others, especially when it comes to something as important as reproductive health care.”

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.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.