Saturday, July 5, 2014
The Supreme Court this week enjoined the exemption for religious non-profits from the requirement that employer group-health insurance plans include contraceptives. That exemption allowed a religious nonprofit to notify its health insurer or third-party administrator (using "EBSA Form 700") that it had a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage; at that point, the insurer or administrator would have to provide contraceptives directly to the organization's employees, free of charge. This week's short, unsigned Order halted the use of EBSA Form 700 and said that petitioner Wheaton College, a religious college in Wheaton, Illinois, could instead write a letter to HHS informing the agency that it is a religious organization and that it has a religious objection to providing coverage for contraceptive services.
In short, the ruling replaced HHS's process for religious exemption (EBSA Form 700) with its own (a letter to HHS).
The ruling strikes a second serious blow to the contraception requirement. (The first came earlier this week in Hobby Lobby, which allowed closely-held, for-profit corporations to exempt themselves from certain contraceptives under the requirement, but almost certainly opened up a much wider hole in the requirement (and potentially in many other government regulations).) The Court was careful to write that its ruling was not a conclusion on the merits. But it's hard to read it any other way, particularly in light of the mertis discussion in the dissent, the fact that the Court drafted its own exemption procedure for religious non-profits (supplanting HHS's procedure), and the Court's suggestion that it'll take up the merits soon enough.
The ruling isn't clear on how religious non-profits' insurers or administrators will have to provide contraceptive coverage. Here's the problem: The insurers or administrators only have to provide contraceptive coverage directly to employees upon learning that a religious non-profit objects, usually through receipt of the EBSA Form 700; but the Court's Order says that Wheaton College and by extension other religious non-profits don't have to complete that form. This leaves it to HHS to figure out whether and how to require insurers and administrators to provide contraceptive coverage directly to the organization's employees.
The Order is strange on several levels. For one, it replaced the HHS exemption (EBSA Form 700) with its own (a letter to HHS). But it's not at all clear that the Court's exemption is any less intrusive on Wheaton College's freedom of religion (at least as the College has defined it in challenging EBSA Form 700): Why is writing a letter to HHS any less intrusive than filing Form 700 and sending it to the insurers and administrators? Wheaton College claimed that the mere certification of its religious objection to the contraception requirement violated its religion (because it made Wheaton College complicit in someone else providing contraception), so why is the letter any better than the form?
For another, it's also not clear why the Court would take such an aggressive action (essentially overruling a valid federal rule and replacing it with its own) at this stage of the litigation (on an application for an injunction), when the circuits are split on the issue (which, as the dissent points out, has been a basis for denying an injunction by some of the very justices who joined the Court in this Order (including Chief Justice Roberts)). This hardly seems like a Court merely calling balls and strikes.
For yet another, the Order seems inconsistent with the Court's ruling just earlier this week in Hobby Lobby. In that case, the majority pointed to HHS's exemption for religious non-profits (the exact same exemption at issue here) as evidence that the contraception requirement for closely held for-profits wasn't narrowly tailored--that is, that the exemption was a way that the government could achieve its interest in providing contraception while still giving closely held for-profits an out. Yet in this later ruling, the Court stepped back from that exemption and replaced it with its own.
Finally, there's the strangeness that a government-created religious exemption could itself violate free religion. This is the point that Judge Posner made so strongly in his opinion rejecting Notre Dame's challenge to the exemption.
Justice Sotomayor wrote a lengthy and vigorous dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, covering everything from the extraordinary relief the Court granted under the very high standard of the All Writs Act to the merits. She also distinguished the Little Sisters case, in which the Court also allowed a letter to replace the EBSA Form 700: Little Sister's third-party administrator was itself a church plan and exempt from the contraception requirement, so nobody's access to contraception was affected. Here, the Court's injunction risks depriving employees of Wheaton College of contraception, because the insurer or the administrator only have to provide it upon receipt of the EBSA Form 700. But under the Court's Order, they won't receive the EBSA Form 700.
As with Hobby Lobby, it's clear that this ruling will extend far beyond the facts of this particular case, likely even farther than the Court itself thought. How far? As with Hobby Lobby, only time will tell.