Pay No Attention to Those Tens of Thousands of Women Affected by the Contraception Litigation

Photo: Hobby Lobby

Flickr/Creative Commons—m01229

By Gregory M. Lipper

In her latest column, Linda Greenhouse predicts that the Supreme Court’s order in Zubik v. Burwell will not produce the desired happy compromise between the government and the religious organizations who object to the government’s arranging for their students and staff to receive contraceptive coverage from third parties. Towards the end, Greenhouse also describes how the objectors have inaccurately insisted that these cases are about nuns and only nuns—ignoring the dozens of other plaintiffs whose students and staff number in the tens of thousands—and how legal commentators (some of whom should know better) have gone along:

[T]here is a widespread misunderstanding that the case is about nuns, specifically the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order whose mission is to run nursing homes for the elderly poor. Commentary following last week’s decision perpetuated this misunderstanding. “Surely the Obama administration could find a way to provide contraception to women without involving a group of Catholic nuns,” Ramesh Ponneru, a senior editor of National Review, wrote in a Bloomberg News post titled “The Culture War Obama Didn’t Have to Wage.” Richard W. Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote on Scotusblog that the Obama administration had “aggressively and unlawfully overreached” in its “strange insistence that a community of nuns who take vows of poverty and care for the elderly poor must serve as a vehicle for delivering free contraception to their employees.” In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Big Win for Little Sisters,” William McGurn wrote that “though it was more a TKO than a straight-up ruling, the Little Sisters prevailed at the Supreme Court Monday in their fight against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.”

This single-minded focus on Little Sisters of the Poor—which itself employs hundreds of people of different religious faiths in multiple states—overlooked the tens of thousands of women who will lose contraceptive coverage if the objectors prevail:

By my count, the Little Sisters of the Poor (who, as I’ve noted before, advertise themselves as equal-opportunity employers in the nursing home enterprise) are only one of 30 petitioners in the seven Supreme Court cases. The other 29 include Catholic and Baptist colleges, Catholic high schools, individual bishops, two chapters of Catholic Charities, other charities, and several individuals.

If anything, there are more objectors and more affected women than even Greenhouse suggests.

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What to Expect When You’re Expecting at Least Another Year of Contraception Litigation

Photo: Zubik Rally

Tim Ritz/Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

In a unanimous, unsigned order hailed as “an almost hilariously brazen punt,” the Supreme Court sent Zubik v. Burwell and the other contraception cases back to the lower courts for further consideration. The order states that, in light of the supplemental briefs submitted at the Court’s request, the parties should have “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.’”

That, of course, describes the current accommodation, which the Court in 2014 touted as a compromise that protected women’s interests while relieving religious objectors’ of any burdens created by the previous requirement that they provide and pay for the coverage themselves. But the Court, likely split 4–4 on whether even that accommodation complies with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, wants the parties to see if they can compromise further without subjecting women to second-class care.

These cases will almost certainly return to the Supreme Court, which may or may not have nine members by that time. But in the meantime, things are up in the air—especially for affected women:

1. The Court decided—nothing. Although objectors’ lawyers claimed victory, even the most nimble of advocates would struggle to identify an actual victory from an order that “expresses no view on the merits of the cases.” Lest any misunderstanding persist, the Court reiterated that it took no position on any of the underlying legal questions:

In particular, the court does not decide [1] whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, [2] whether the Government has a compelling interest, or [3] whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.

Those questions will be decided again by the Courts of Appeals, all but one of which has already ruled against the objectors. A victory this is not.

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The Zubik Supplemental Briefs: The Objectors Push for Second-Class Coverage, With a Smile

Photo: Supreme Court rally

Tim Ritz/Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

The first set of supplemental briefs in Zubik v. Burwell is in. The government seems willing to accept a modified version of the Court’s proposed compromise—if it means that the Court will halt the neverending legal challenges to the contraceptive-coverage regulations. The religious objectors, however, merely purport to accept the Court’s proposal; in practice, they are standing by their insistance that affected women should be forced to seek and obtain second-class, contraception-only policies that will sever their reproductive care from the rest of their healthcare. And they reserve the right to use the political process to oppose the creation of even those second-class plans.

Recall that the Court proposed a modified version of the government’s accommodation. The Court proposed that rather than provide separate written notice in order to become exempt from the coverage regulations, objectors coud simply “inform their insurance company that they do not want their health plan to include contraceptive coverage of the type to which they object on religious grounds”; at that point, and as contemplated by the existing accommodation, the insurance companies “would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.” (If you want more detail, here’s my earlier coverage of the Court’s order.) Continue reading

About that Order for Supplemental Briefing in Zubik v. Burwell

Photo: Pen & Parchment

Flickr/Creative Commons—Christa Uymatiao

By Gregory M. Lipper

This afternoon the Supreme Court requested supplemental briefing in Zubik v. Burwell and the other challenges to the contraceptive-coverage accommodation, as follows: “The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs that address whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”

And in so doing, the Court offered a proposal of its own (I’ve added paragraph breaks and numbering):

[1] For example, the parties should consider a situation in which petitioners would contract to provide health insurance for their employees, and in the course of obtaining such insurance, inform their insurance company that they do not want their health plan to include contraceptive coverage of the type to which they object on religious grounds.

[2] Petitioners would have no legal obligation to provide such contraceptive coverage, would not pay for such coverage, and would not be required to submit any separate notice to their insurer, to the Federal Government, or to their employees.

[3] At the same time, petitioners’ insurance company—aware that petitioners are not providing certain contraceptive coverage on religious grounds—would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.

Although it’s foolish to read tea leaves, read them I shall:

1. I think that this is a decent sign for the government. It was clear from last week’s argument that four Justices would vote to uphold the accommodation; but the potential fifth vote, Justice Kennedy, seemed to be skeptical of the government’s arguments. This order suggests that at least five Justices (including Justice Kennedy) seem to think that the challengers’ proposed alternatives to the accommodation (create separate, contraceptive-only policies and require women to seek them out; expand Title X clinics; and other Rube Goldberg-schemes) harm women by preventing them from receiving seamless and convenient coverage. If the Court thought that those other alternatives were sufficient, then it wouldn’t be looking for a way to ensure that women retained accommodation-style seamless coverage.

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The Economist on Contraceptive Coverage and Misleading Metaphors

By Gregory M. Lipper

The Economist is not buying the challengers’ claim that the provision of contraceptive coverage—by third parties—is an act of “hijacking”:

When the government arranges for contraceptive coverage with the insurance company used by the religious charity, it is not commandeering anybody’s property. Nor is it taking metaphorical control of the group’s health insurance plan. Instead, the government is seeking to fulfil Obamacare’s near-universal guarantee to female employees by working with the same insurance company or third-party plan administrator that provides the rest of the employee’s health benefits. Neither the insurance company nor the plan is the property of the religious charity: Aetna is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Catholic Charities. The non-profit and the insurer are independent entities.  When a school brings a child to a playground that his parents (for some reason) opt to avoid, the teachers are not “hijacking” the swingset. They are using a resource for the child’s benefit. The parents may be displeased about the school trip to the forbidden playground, but any complaint they raise would necessarily have a paternalistic flavour. Employers do not have such a role vis-a-vis their employees.

Read the full essay here.

Greg Lipper (@theglipper) is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Zubik v. Burwell Oral Argument

Photo: Zubik v. Burwell Signs

Tim Ritz / Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

Over at Rewire, I’ve analyzed yesterday’s oral argument in Zubik v. Burwell. Among other things, I address the recurring claim that the government was “hijacking” religious objectors’ health plans by arranging for third party insurers and plan administrators to provide contraceptive coverage to affected women:

The fear of hijacking might have made sense if we were talking about a plane instead of a plan. But an insurance company is not an employer’s personal property. If the insurance company, separately from the employer, wants to provide extra coverage to the employees, that’s none of the employer’s business—especially since that contraceptive coverage is guaranteed to women by federal law. At the argument, Clement compared the accommodation to the government running a contraception clinic out of the Little Sisters’ home, but the more apt analogy is that the government has set up shop across the street: The challengers simply have no legitimate interest in preventing the government from “hijacking” a nearby vacant lot.

You can read the full article at Rewire’s freshly redesigned website. And more on the “hijacking” argument here.

Greg Lipper (@theglipper) is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Zubik v. Burwell, Part 6: The Accommodation is the Least-Restrictive Option

Photo: Demonstration

Flickr/Creative Commons—Joe Brusky

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this series)

The plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell and its siblings seek to block their students and employees from receiving contraceptive coverage from third-party insurance companies and plan administrators. Even though the plaintiffs need neither provide nor pay for contraceptive coverage, they argue that the government can and must adopt one or more purportedly less-restrictive alternatives, including (1) providing contraceptives or contraceptive-specific coverage to women directly; (2) offering grants to other entities that provide contraceptives; (3) offering tax credits or tax deductions to women required to pay for contraceptives; or (4) expanding eligibility for programs that provide contraceptives to low-income women. (The University of Notre Dame, whose petition for Supreme Court review is pending, has also argued that it could provide coverage for natural family planning; the Seventh Circuit correctly noted that natural family planning “is not contraception at all.”)

These proposed alternatives would not achieve the government’s interest as effectively as the accommodation; they would, instead, impose financial or logistical barriers on women, thwarting their seamless access to contraceptives and demoting contraceptives to junior-varsity care. Women would be forced to identify and register for yet another new program, perhaps see a different doctor for contraception-related care, and possibly pay out of pocket. (For more on the problems with the proposed alternatives, see my organization’s brief on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities, as well as the brief of health law policy experts prepared by Hogan Lovells.)

By requiring women to jump through logistical hoops and incur additonal costs, the proposed alternatives would reduce access to and use of contraceptives. Studies show that even minor barriers can dramatically reduce contraceptive access: Continue reading

Zubik v. Burwell, Part 5: These Exceptions are Unexceptional

Photo: Bronze IUD

Flickr/Creative Commons—Sarah Mirk

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4, and Part 6 of this series)

Despite birth control’s considerable benefits, the challengers in Zubik v. Burwell argue that the government lacks a compelling interest in applying the contraceptive accommodation to religious objectors. No matter how important it is to ensure that women have access to contraceptive coverage, the challengers say, the presence of other exceptions to the coverage requirements makes the interest in providing contraceptive coverage less than compelling. If contraceptive coverage were truly important, the argument goes, then there wouldn’t be any exceptions at all.

This argument proves too much—way too much. Almost all laws have exceptions. As the government explains in its brief to the Supreme Court, “Numerous organizations are not required to pay taxes; half the country’s draft-age population is exempt from registering for the draft; and Title VII does not apply to millions of employers with fewer than 15 employees, see 42 U.S.C. 2000e(b). Yet no one would suggest that raising tax revenue, raising an army, and combating employment discrimination are not compelling interests.” Indeed, despite Title VII’s exemption for small employers, the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby reiterated that “[t]he Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race…”

Despite these examples, the plaintiffs claim that the government’s interest in contraceptive coverage is undermined by three exceptions: (1) employers with fewer than fifty employees need not provide health insurance at all; (2) houses of worship are exempted from the contraceptive-coverage requirement; and (3) grandfathered employers are exempted from some coverage requirements, including the one pertaining to contraceptives. But none of these make the government’s interest any less compelling.

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Zubik v. Burwell, Part 4: The Compelling Interest in Contraceptive Coverage

Photo: Birth Control Rally

Flickr/Creative Commons—Women’s eNews

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 5, and Part 6 of this series.)

If the Supreme Court were to conclude that the plantiffs in Zubik v. Burwell plaintiffs have established a substantial burden on religious exercise, the case is not over. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government may enforce even a law that substantially burdens religious exercise if that law advances a compelling governmental interest and is the least-restrictive means of advancing that interest. In the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court majority assumed, without deciding, that the coverage regulations advanced a compelling interest. And in his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy went further: It was “important to confirm,” he wrote, that “a premise of the Court’s opinion is its assumption that the HHS regulation here at issue furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of female employees.”

The government’s interest in ensuring that women have contraceptive coverage is compelling indeed. Access to contraception has many benefits—some of them obvious, others less so. And these benefits explain why the CDC has listed family planning as one of the 10 most important public-health advances of the 20th century.

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Zubik v. Burwell, Part 3: Birth Control Is Not Abortion

Photo: Plan B

Flickr/Creative Commons—Irina Ivanova

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 1Part 2Part 4Part 5, and Part 6 of this series)

Pay attention to the Supreme Court’s upcoming contraceptive-coverage cases and you’ll hear horror stories from religious-right groups about an “abortion-pill mandate” (here’s ADF and ACLJ). These groups know that contraception is popular and that, to most people, campaigns to block birth control would seem Jurassic. With abortion more controversial, claims about compulsory distribution of “abortion pills” sound much scarier. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ briefs in Zubik claim that the accommodation would make the plaintiffs complicit in the provision of coverage for, among other things, “abortifacients.”

But neither surgical abortion nor the abortion pill (known as RU–486) are part of the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements. So why are courts, websites, and inboxes awash in complaints about the termination of pregnancies?

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Zubik v. Burwell, Part 2: The Religious Objectors Who Cried Wolf

Photo: wolf

Flickr/Creative Commons—Luke Jones

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 1, Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6 of this series)

Yesterday, I evaluated the unprecedented arguments, by the plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell and its companion cases, that the process for seeking a religious exemption from the contraceptive-coverage regulations itself burdened the objectors’ religious exericse. Today, I move to a more basic question: Are these idiosyncratic claims sincere?

Like all free-exercise provisions, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects only sincere religious beliefs; it does not permit challengers to cloak ideological or financial objections in religious garb. Insincerity can reveal itself in several ways: prior inconsistent conduct, claims that are suspiciously timed, or outright admissions of an ulterior motive. The RFRA challenges to the contraceptive coverage regulations—and especially the accommodation—have presented several of these elements. But the government, in resisting these RFRA challenges, has not challenged the plaintiffs’ sincerity.

That said, there are several reasons to doubt the sincerity of several plaintiffs’ claims, and to see these lawsuits as an exercise in politics arising from broader conservative and religious opposition to the Obama administration’s positions on issues such as healthcare reform, stem cell research, abortion, and marriage equality. This apparent insincerity provides yet another reason to reject the latest round of RFRA challenges to the contraceptive accommodation.

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Zubik v. Burwell, Part 1: Why Paperwork Does Not Burden Religious Exercise

Photo: IUD

Flickr/Creative Commons—mara

By Gregory M. Lipper

(Read Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6 of this series)

Birth control is back at the high court. On March 23, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Zubik v. Burwell and its six companion cases. Despite what you may have heard, religious objectors—whether they are nuns or Notre Dame—are not required to distribute birth control. On the contrary, an accommodation enables religious objectors to opt out of offering contraceptive coverage to their employees; once the objectors request the accommodation, the government arranges for the objectors’ insurance companies or plan administrators to provide the coverage—at no cost to either the objectors or their students and employees. But does this accommodation itself violate objectors’ free-exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

No, say eight of the nine federal appeals courts to consider the question. These courts have rejected the argument that by opting out of providing contraceptive coverage, objectors’ religious exercise is substantially burdened because the government arranges for a third party to pick up the slack. Continue reading

“Crisis Pregnancy Center Fighting for Right to Create More Crisis Pregnancies”

IUD in hand

Flickr/Creative Commons—+mara

By Gregory M. Lipper

That’s how Tara Murtha describes the lawsuit brought by Real Alternatives and its three (male) employees seeking to enjoin application of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage regulations. This lawsuit is different than the ones currently before the Supreme Court: Real Alternatives is not a religious organization, and its employees argue that the mere availability of contraceptive coverage in their own plans violates their rights under RFRA—even though nobody is making them use that coverage.

The plaintiffs are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal organization that has also represented many of the for-profit corporations and nonprofit religious organizations bringing free-exercise challenges to the coverage regulations and accommodation. Unlike most of ADF’s other clients in these cases, Real Alternatives acknowledges that its opposition to the coverage regulations arises purely from its opposition to the use of birth control; there is no claimed religious basis for this opposition.

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The Supreme Court and Contraceptive Coverage—Take 2

Supreme Court

Flickr/Creative Commons – Andrew Raff

By Gregory M. Lipper

Today the Supreme Court granted review in seven challenges to the accommodation offered to those with religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage regulations. I won’t rehash my earlier posts about why I (and seven of eight federal appeals courts) think that these challenges, brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are bunk. For now, a few observations about the cases and today’s cert grants:

1. These cases involve challenges to a religious accommodation, not the coverage requirement itself. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court said that the government couldn’t enforce the contraceptive coverage regulations against for-profit corporations with religious objections. The Court pointed to a less-restrictive alternative: the accommodation, offered to nonprofit organizations, through which the organization submits a written objection and government arranges for the objector’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to either the objector or its employees. The plaintiffs in these cases are challenging the accommodation itself. By analogy, this is like a conscientious objector challenging the process for opting out of the draft.

2. Oddly enough, Hobby Lobby didn’t officially resolve RFRA challenges to the accommodation. You might think that since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby pointed to the accommodation as the less-restrictive alternative, then the Court must have also made clear that the accommodation itself complied with RFRA. But the majority opinion did not do so. Instead, after pointing to the accommodation as a less-restrictive alternative, the majority said, “We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.”

3. And/But: Justice Kennedy, the deciding vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested more clearly that the accommodation complies with RFRA. Although he joined the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy also wrote separately and appeared to bless the accommodation. Here’s what he said:

  • “That accommodation equally furthers the Government’s interest but does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”
  • “Yet neither may that same [free exercise] unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here.”

If Justice Kennedy holds to his view in Hobby Lobby, then the plaintiffs in these cases will probably lose.

4. Although the plaintiffs in these cases are nonprofit organizations, the result will affect employees of for-profit corporations. As instructed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, the government extended the accommodation to closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. But neither Hobby Lobby nor the other for-profit plaintiffs have said that they will accept the accommodation, and most of them are represented by the same organizations representing the nonprofit challengers to the accommodation. So if the Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the accommodation as applied to nonprofit organizations, employees of objecting for-profit corporations will almost certainly go entirely without contraceptive coverage as well.

5. “[Y]ou are not entitled to your own facts….” Today the Becket Fund, which represents Little Sisters of the Poor and several other plaintiffs, issued a press release entitled “High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives.” This is false—full stop. Under the accommodation, contraceptives are provided by the employer’s insurance company or plan administrator; employers aren’t paying for the insurance coverage, let alone handing out the insurance coverage, let alone handing out contraceptives themselves. Whether or not you think that the accommodation resolves employers’ religious objections, it is simply not true that—as a matter of fact—objecting nuns are required “to provide contraceptives.” (This is not, I should add, the first time that the Becket Fund has made this claim in a press release.) I will be curious to see whether Becket Fund repeats this claim in its briefs to the Court.

Greg Lipper is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can follow him on Twitter at @theglipper.

RFRA Jumps The Shark: The 8th Circuit Strikes Down the Contraception Accommodation (Part 2)

Lego_SharkJump

Flickr/Creative Commons – Bill Ward

By Gregory M. Lipper

Thomas Jefferson famously said that “[i]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Note what Jefferson did not say: “my neighbor is entitled to pick my pocket and break my leg, so long as the government can refill my pocket and pay for a cast on my leg.”

But the latter formulation seemed to influence last week’s Eighth Circuit ruling that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bars the government from implementing an accommodation for employers with religious objections to including contraception in their health plans. In my previous post, I explained why the Eighth Circuit reduced RFRA’s substantial-burden requirement to a mere formality, potentially subjecting any and every federal law or regulation to strict scrutiny. Once things get to strict scrutiny, the Eighth Circuit goes even further, suggesting that a federal regulation cannot be sustained if the government could, in theory, provide the benefit or service itself.

The Eighth Circuit first applied this approach to the process by which employers obtain the religious exemption. Under the current rules, an objecting organization need only send a written notice to the government and identify its insurance provider or third-party administrator; the government then works with the insurance provider or third-party administrator to arrange for the employees to receive the contraceptive coverage to which they are entitled by law.

The Eighth Circuit, however, reasoned that there is a less-restrictive alternative to requiring this information, since the government could identify the necessary insurance providers and third-party administrators on its own—well, maybe: “Even if the [third-party administrators] are not known, the government has not shown at this stage of the proceedings that the inconvenience of identifying the [third-party administrators] likely would create an administrative problem of sufficient magnitude to make its entire scheme unworkable.” According to the Eighth Circuit, then, no disclosure requirement can be sustained unless the government can prove that it would be unable to discover the information after its own investigation.

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RFRA Jumps The Shark: The 8th Circuit Strikes Down the Contraception Accommodation (Part 1)

Flickr/Creative Commons – Bill Ward

Flickr/Creative Commons – Bill Ward

By Gregory M. Lipper

On Thursday, the Eighth Circuit all but assured that major parts of the Affordable Care Act will return to the Supreme Court’s chopping block. This time the issue is whether an accommodation—enabling religious objectors to opt out of offering contraceptive coverage to their employees—itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Eighth Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs in Sharpe Holdings, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with a companion case brought by Dordt College. The court concluded that the accommodation substantially burdened plaintiffs’ religious exercise and that the accommodation was not the least-restrictive means of ensuring that the plaintiffs’ employees had contraceptive coverage.

The Eighth Circuit’s substantial-burden ruling is unprecedented. Indeed, the contraception coverage cases appear to be the first time that exempted entities have sued to prevent the government from implementing a religious exemption. Like the other nonprofit organizations challenging the contraception regulations, the plaintiffs in this case are not required to cover contraceptives. All they have to do is provide written notice (to either their plan administrator or the Department of Health and Human Services) that they object to providing contraceptive coverage and wish to opt out. Once they provide that notice, the government arranges for the plan administrator to arrange for contraceptive coverage—at no charge to either the plaintiffs or their employees.

The plaintiffs insist that by opting out of providing contraceptive coverage, they “indirectly provide, trigger, and facilitate that objectionable coverage through the … accommodation process.” Every other federal appeals court to have addressed these challenges—even courts as conservative as the Fifth Circuit—has rejected this argument. Indeed, the plaintiffs are being asked to do what they have already done voluntarily: state, in writing, that they object to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And it is the HHS regulations, not the plaintiffs’ written notice, that facilitates the provision of contraceptive coverage to plaintiffs’ employees.

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(Final) Reply to Author of Cato Brief in Little Sisters Contraception Case

kangaroos

Flickr Creative Commons/Charlie Marshall

By Gregory M. Lipper

This is the third and (I promise) final installment in my skirmish with Josh Blackman over a brief that he and Cato Institute filed in support of Little Sisters of the Poor’s quixotic challenge to regulations requiring them to fill out a form to obtain an exemption from providing contraceptive coverage to its employees. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you can do so here (my first post), here (Josh’s response to me), here (my first reply to Josh), and here (Josh’s second response to me). The basic gist is that, contrary to Cato’s brief, (1) HHS had the authority to implement the nonprofit accommodation, and (2) if HHS didn’t have the authority to issue the accommodation, then Hobby Lobby no longer controls whether the original contraceptive coverage requirement satisfies RFRA, because the Court in Hobby Lobby pointed to the HHS accommodation as the basis for concluding that a less-restrictive alternative exists.

Now, on to Josh’s most recent response.

First, Josh suggests that he’s not actually assuming away the basis of Hobby Lobby, because the HHS nonprofit accommodation could still in theory be enacted by Congress; even if HHS lacked the authority to issue the nonprofit accommodation, he says, it would still constitute a less-restrictive means and thus lead to the same result in Hobby Lobby (such that the Supreme Court can dodge the question in Little Sisters).

But that’s not right either. The premise of Hobby Lobby was that the less-restrictive alternative was existing and on the books; the accommodation was one that “HHS has already devised and implemented.” The Court added: “[W]e need not rely on the option of a new, government-funded program in order to conclude that the HHS regulations fail the least-restrictive-means test. HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs.” Justice Kennedy, the decisive vote, added that “the mechanism for [accommodating the plaintiffs] is already in place.” (All emphases added by me.)

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A Reply to the Author of Cato’s Brief in the Little Sisters Contraception Case

15146549078_d72e1da8b6_z

Flickr Creative Commons/WEBN-TV

By Gregory M. Lipper

Josh Blackman has replied to my post criticizing the Cato Institute’s amicus brief (which Josh coauthored) in support of the cert petition in the Little Sisters contraception case. My original post made two arguments: (1) if you take away the nonprofit accommodation, Hobby Lobby no longer supplies a rule of decision, because the presence of the nonprofit accommodation was what led the Court to conclude that RFRA barred the coverage requirement, and (2) if you prevent regulatory agencies from offering reasonable, tailored accommodations to their regulations, the result is bad for religious liberty.

Two brief comment on Josh’s reply.

First, on the question of agency authority to issue religious accommodations, Josh incorrectly suggests that I miss a subtelty in his argument. Josh/Cato say that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has authority to issue religious accommodations, but that it may not decide “which organizations were worthy of the exemption, and which would be burdened by the accommodation.” I address this argument in my original post: the Cato brief assumes that religious accommodations are all-or-nothing, but that is not how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) works. RFRA details when accommodations are available and when they are not (and the Establishment Clause limits accommodations that unduly harm third parties). So an agency (HHS, or otherwise) cannot, as a practical matter, offer accommodations without determining who is eligible for that accommodation and who is not. As I said in my original post, Cato “would force agencies to choose between a bludgeon and no tools at all, even when the agency would need a scalpel to craft religious accommodations consistent with RFRA.”

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Little Sisters: Cato Institute Targets the Affordable Care Act—Yet Again

By Gregory M. Lipper

Fresh off its unsuccessful attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act in King v. Burwell, the Cato Institute is back for more. This time, Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Supreme Court review in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell. This is one of the many, many (many) challenges brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by nonprofit organizations to an accommodation, offered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), exempting religious nonprofits from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. To take advantage of the accommodation, nonprofits need only provide written notice to the government of their objection and the name of their insurance provider or plan administrator. At that point, the government arranges for the nonprofit organization’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to the nonprofit or its employees.

These RFRA challenges to the nonprofit accommodation have been rejected by all seven federal appeals courts to address them. But in this brief backing the challenge by Little Sisters, Cato asks the Supreme Court to dodge the RFRA question entirely, claiming that the case “can be resolved without further engaging in the delicate analysis required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Instead, Cato makes the following argument: (1) in light of King v. Burwell’s statements about agency deference, HHS had no authority to offer religious accommodations to its own regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act, and (2) without a religious accommodation, the contraceptive coverage requirement is unenforceable against nonprofit organizations with religious objections.

Cato seeks—in the name of religious liberty!—to prevent regulatory agencies from granting accommodations to entities with religious objections to regulations, and then argues that the absence of religious accommodation makes the underlying regulations unenforceable against religious objectors. Cato’s curious argument suffers from two serious flaws.

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Waiting for Hobby Lobby–A brief refresher of the issues

Cross post from healthlawprof blog

Jennifer S. Bard

Since the likelihood is that many readers of this blog will be asked to comment when the Supreme Court, some time this week, announces its decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialty cases here’s a brief refresher and some links.  The cases are challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who choose to offer health insurance to their employees must provide policies that include ten essential benefits-including contraception.  The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and read the briefs—it’s likely that whatever opinion is issued will reflect at least some of the arguments presented to the Court.

This case is about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who offer their employees health insurance must include ten essential benefits, including contraception.  Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are privately held, for-profit companies whose owners have sincerely held religious objections to providing four specific kinds of contraception.  They believe these contraceptives terminate rather than prevent pregnancy.  Many religious organizations and companies have gotten exemptions to these requirements, but this case considers whether private, for-profit companies should qualify as well.

The cases raise three major issues:

  1. Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to corporations even though it uses the word “person?” (Can companies have religious beliefs?)
  2. Is providing insurance that covers birth control a “substantial burden?” on these two company’s’ religious beliefs?
  3. Does the government have a compelling reason for requiring companies that provide insurance to have it cover birth control?

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