Saturday, May 23, 2015
Federal appeals courts this week dealt two (more) blows to opponents of Obamacare's religious accommodation to the contraception mandate. A Seventh Circuit panel ruled that the accommodation did not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, and the full D.C. Circuit declined to re-hear an earlier panel ruling against opponents.
Together the rulings should put an end to this chapter of challenges to Obamacare. But by now we've learned never to say never . . . .
The cases grow out of religious non-profits' opposition to the government-created religious accommodation to Obamacare's contraception mandate. The accommodation requires a religious non-profit to complete a form to notify its health insurer (or third-party administrator) that the non-profit objects to providing contraception as part of its health insurance plan. The law then requires the insurer or third-party administrator to provide contraception coverage directly to plan participants, free of charge.
Opponents say that the accommodation--the form that notifies the insurance company of the religious objection--itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because it "triggers" the provision of contraception coverage to plan participants.
The Seventh Circuit categorically rejected that claim last February. But then the Supreme Court handed down Hobby Lobby, holding that the contraception mandate violated the RFRA as applied to a self-insured, closely-held, for-profit corporation, and requiring an accommodation. But Hobby Lobby also contained language suggesting that an accommodation of the type challenged by religious non-profits would skirt any RFRA problem. The Supreme Court then vacated the Seventh Circuit ruling and remanded for reconsideration in light of Hobby Lobby.
The Seventh Circuit panel this week again ruled against the challengers, citing the same problems in the original case (before Hobby Lobby)--under the law the non-profit doesn't act as a "conduit" for the provision of contraception (the law itself does this), and the case was under-developed at the trial level. As to Hobby Lobby, the panel said that the Supreme Court recognized the accommodation as valid, but that the Court "did leave open . . . the possibility that the accommodation sought and obtained there would not prevent religious beliefs or practices from being substantially burdened in some cases." But the Seventh Circuit said that those beliefs or practices weren't burdened here, by the accommodation. In particular, the court wrote that Notre Dame couldn't come up with any workable alternative to the accommodation that wouldn't "impede the receipt of [contraception] benefits," especially given the undeveloped factual record in the case.
The D.C. Circuit (also, and again) came to the same conclusion in denying a rehearing en banc. Its earlier panel ruling in Priests for Life came down after Hobby Lobby, so already considered any effects of that case.
The principal problem with the challenges is that, contrary to the challengers' claims, it's not the accommodation that triggers the provision of contraception; it's the law that does that. In the language of the Seventh Circuit, the non-profits don't act as a "conduit" for the provision of contraception, because the law itself requires insurers and administrators to provide contraception. And a mistaken interpretation of the law is not a burden on religion. Or, as Judge Pillard put it in her concurring opinion to the D.C. Circuit's denial of en banc review:
The dispute we resolved is legal, not religious. Under the ACA regulations, a woman who obtains health insurance coverage through her employer is no more entitled to contraceptive coverage if her employer submits the disputed notice than if it does not. The ACA obligation to provide contraceptive coverage to all insured women does not depend on that notice. Nothing in RFRA requires that we accept Plaintiffs' assertions to the contrary.