February 15, 2013
The Contraception Mandate and Private Employers in the Circuits
There's a growing split among circuit courts that have ruled on whether to grant an injunction pending appeal to private employers who object to the contraception mandate under HHS regs pursuant to the Affordable Care Act. The underlying issues--whether the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or free exercise--seem to be moving closer and closer to Supreme Court review.
(These issues are different than the issue in the other cases testing the mandate--by religious employers. Courts in those cases have held them in abeyance or dismissed them outright in anticipation of new HHS regs that exempt religious employers from the mandate. The regs would exempt religious employers, but not secular corporations owned by religious individuals.)
The Seventh Circuit ruled recently, for the second time, that a private employer was likely to succeed on its RFRA claim against the contraception mandate. That court in Grote v. Sebelius held that the corporation's owners' religious objections to the mandate, the government's likely failure to justify the mandate at strict scrutiny under the RFRA, and the owners' harm meant that the contraception mandate must be enjoined pending the company's appeal. The case echoes that court's earlier ruling in Korte v. Sebelius. (The difference between the two cases--that the company in Grote was self-insured, while the company in Korte wasn't--didn't justify different treatment, according to the court.) Both rulings drew dissents by Judge Rovner, but the Grote dissent was especially sharp and lengthy. In short, Judge Rovner took issue with the idea that the secular corporations enjoyed free exercise rights, even if the owners did.
The Eighth Circuit has lined up with the Seventh Circuit, while the Third, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits have gone the other way. (Recall that Justice Sotomayor denied Hobby Lobby's application for a stay in the Tenth Circuit case. The Seventh Circuit took account of that denial, but distinguished it, saying that the standard for a stay at the Supreme Court was much higher than the standard for an injunction pending appeal.)
These cases are on a motion for an injunction pending appeal, not the underlying merits. Still, they presage a merits ruling, as the courts consider the likelihood of success on the merits as part of the injunction analysis.
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