Sunday, August 6, 2017
A divided three-judge panel of the Third Circuit last week rejected a challenge to the contraception requirement under the Affordable Care Act by a self-described non-religious, anti-abortion nonprofit and three of its employees. The case represents the next generation of challenges to the requirement--after Hobby Lobby (a for-profit corporation with a religious objection) and Zubik v. Burwell (dealing with religious non-profits).
The plaintiff, Real Alternatives, is a non-profit, self-described non-religious, anti-abortion organization that objected to the contraception requirement on Equal Protection and statutory grounds. In particular, the organization and three of its employees argued that the requirement violates equal protection, because "if a religious organization may be exempted from the Contraceptive Mandate, then non-religious entities with an identical stance on contraceptives must be exempted as well." They also challenged the requirement under the Administrative Procedures Act. The three employees also argued that the requirement violated the Church Amendment and the RFRA.
The court rejected all of these challenges. As to equal protection, the court said, quite simply, that Real Alternatives, as a non-religious group, is not "similarly situated to a religious employer, such that the Exemption must be available to the group . . . ." In other words, Real Alternatives can't shoehorn itself into an exemption created for religious employers by way of the Equal Protection Clause, because, well, it's not religious. The court went on to say that "respecting church autonomy" by creating an exemption for churches (and not secular non-profits) is a "legitimate purpose--one that not only satisfies rational basis review but also is enshrined in the constitutional fabric of this country."
The court rejected the APA claim based on the same standard (under a different name): the requirement isn't "arbitrary and capricious" under the APA, for the same reasons that it satisfies rational basis review under equal protection.
As to the Church Amendment, the court said that the plaintiffs lacked standing, because they "purchase their health insurance from a company in the health insurance market, not from HHS or an HHS-administered health insurance program that falls under the purview of the Church Amendment."
Finally, as to RFRA, the court said the requirement didn't create a substantial burden on the employees' religious exercise, because merely being covered by insurance only gives the employees a choice to access a service, not a substantial burden on their religious exercise:
It is still up to the employee to decide what to do with those options, to seek out relevant providers, to submit claims for reimbursement for the service he or she selects, and so on. The act complained of--the filling out of a form that triggers eligibility for reimbursement for services the employee chooses to use (or not)--has not changed, and it in no way amounts to the sort of "substantial" burden consistently found contrary to RFRA. And the possibility that others might avail themselves of services that the employees find objectionable is no more burdensome than filling out the form . . . .
Judge Jordan dissented, arguing that the employees "adequately pled and provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Contraceptive Mandate is a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion" under RFRA. (Judge Jordan joined the other parts of the majority opinion.)