Friday, November 14, 2014
The D.C. Circuit today upheld HHS accommodations to religious nonprofits that object to complying with contraception requirements under agency regs and the ACA. The ruling aligns with earlier rulings from the Sixth and Seventh Circuits and means that the accommodations stay on the books. (The case is not governed by Hobby Lobby, because the plaintiffs here challenge the accommodation, not the "contraception mandate" itself. Hobby Lobby had no accommodation option.)
The case represents yet another judicial attack against the ACA and its implementation. And this issue may eventually work its way (back) to the Supreme Court. (Notre Dame filed a cert. petition in October, after losing in the Seventh Circuit.)
The case is the latest challenge to HHS regulations that allow religious nonprofits to opt-out of the "contraception mandate" by filing a form with their insurer or a letter with HHS stating their religious objection to providing contraception. (The letter to HHS is the agency's regulatory answer to the Supreme Court's action this summer that enjoined the form and held that a religious nonprofit could instead file a letter with HHS.) Plaintiffs (religious nonprofits) argue that the accommodation itself violates the RFRA (among other things), because the accommodation "triggers" the provision of contraception by third parties.
The D.C. Circuit flatly--and quite thoroughly--rejected this claim. In sum:
We conclude that the challenged regulations do not impose a substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise under RFRA. All plaintiffs must do to opt out is express what they beleive and seek what they want via a letter or two-page form. That bit of paperwork is more straightforward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations' compliance with law in the modern administrative state. Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms. The ACA shifts to health insurers and administrators the obligation to pay for and provide contraceptive coverage for insured persons who would otherwise lose it as a result of the religious accommodation.
The court held that the accommodation was merely a de minimis requirement and not a substantial burden--and therefore not subject to RFRA's strict scrutiny. "In sum, both opt-out mechanisms let eligible organizations extricate themselves fully from the burden of providing contraceptive coverage to employees, pay nothing toward such coverage, and have the providers tell the employees that their employers play no role and in no way should be seen to endorse the coverage." The court emphasized that RFRA "does not grant Plaintiffs a religious veto against plan providers' compliance with those regulations, nor the right to enlist the government to effectuate such a religious veto against legally required conduct of third parties."
The court said that even if the accommodation were a substantial burden, the court would uphold it under RFRA's strict scrutiny. That's because "[a] confluence of compelling interests supports maintaining seamless application of contraceptive coverage to insured individuals even as Plaintiffs are excused from providing it." Examples: the benefits of planning for healthy births and avoiding unwanted pregnancy, and the promotion of equal preventive care for women. "The accommodation requires as little as it can from the objectors while still serving the government's compelling interests."
The court also clarified some important aspects of the way the accommodation works. For one, exercising the accommodation doesn't "trigger" anything; instead, it works to take the religious nonprofit entirely out of the contraception-provision business. For another, religious nonprofits' contracts with providers don't authorize or facilitate contraceptive coverage; the federal regs do. Finally, exercising the accommodation doesn't turn a religious nonprofit's plan into a "conduit for contraceptive coverage"; instead, it takes the the religious nonprofit out of the contraceptive business entirely.