News Law and Policy

Obama Administration Remains Undefeated in Nonprofit Contraception Challenges

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Friday's ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is the seventh consecutive federal appeals court to rule in favor of the Obama administration.

The Obama administration on Friday chalked up yet another victory in the fight over the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, as the seventh federal court of appeals ruled the accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofits looking to avoid providing contraception coverage does not burden objectors’ religious rights.

The decision came in the case of religiously affiliated nonprofits in New York that object to providing health insurance coverage for some or all forms of contraception. The plaintiffs in Catholic Health Care System v. Sebelius argue that the task of completing the government’s form that self-certifies them as religious employers, and thus eligible for an accommodation to the coverage, requirement “triggers” or “facilitates” the ability of their employees to get contraceptive coverage elsewhere.

This argument is identical to those put forth by other religious institutions that have challenged the law’s birth control benefit, to no avail.

Friday’s decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejecting those claims is the seventh decision from a federal appeals court to side with the Obama administration. So far, not a single federal appeals court has sided with the challengers.

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A federal district court had originally ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in December 2013. Friday’s decision reverses that ruling, with the Second Circuit concluding that the accommodation “relieves, rather than imposes, any substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ religious exercise.”

“If RFRA plaintiffs needed only to assert that their religious beliefs were substantially burdened, federal courts would be reduced to rubber stamps, and the government would have to defend innumerable actions under demanding strict scrutiny analysis,” the court wrote.

The Second Circuit joins the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits, as well as the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in finding for the Obama administration.

“Every additional court of appeals that rules against the plaintiffs  makes it less and less likely that the Supreme Court will get involved,” Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Rewire in an interview. “Liberal judges, moderate judges, conservative judges, ultra-conservative judges all seem to agree that there’s no substantial burden here.”

Despite the fact that the federal appellate courts are unanimous in their support for the accommodation process, attorneys for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a right-wing legal advocacy organization, have filed six requests with the U.S. Supreme Court asking justices to look at its clients’ claims that completing the paperwork necessary to avoid providing birth control coverage substantially burdens their religious rights.

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