Saturday, October 7, 2017
The ACLU filed suit yesterday in the Northern District of California challenging the Trump Administration's roll-back of the contraception benefit under the Affordable Care Act. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
The lawsuit also illustrates the new approach to religion under this administration as stated yesterday in AG Sessions's principles of religious liberty.
The suit, which also includes SEIU-UHW as a plaintiff, argues that the roll-back in HHS's interim final regulations would permit religiously affiliated organizations that currently get an exemption from the contraception-coverage requirement to back out of the requirement altogether. (The exemption permits religiously affiliated organizations to pass the implementation off to their insurer or third-party administrator, so that the organization itself doesn't have anything to do with contraception, but so that employees and students of the organization still get direct and free access through the insurer or third-party administrator. The interim final rules would permit those organizations to deny contraception coverage entirely.)
The complaint argues that the move violates the Establishment Clause, equal protection, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the ACA itself:
By authorizing businesses, non-profit organizations, and universities to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and students, and rob women of health coverage that is otherwise guaranteed by law, the Religious Exemption [interim final rule] violates the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, by authorizing employers to block contraception coverage based on religious or other grounds, both [interim final rules] violate the right to equal protection guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, because the [interim final rules] were promulgated without good cause for foregoing notice and comment and without providing a reasoned basis for the change in agency position as required by the Administrative Procedure Act, they violate federal statutory requirements that agencies not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner and observe procedures required by law. Finally, the [interim final rules] exceed the statutory authority given to the agencies by the Affordable Care Act.
As to the Establishment Clause, the complaint argues that the purpose and effect of the interim final rules were to advance religion, and that they foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
It's no coincidence that the interim final rules came out the same day as AG Sessions's principles on religious liberty.
But note that while the ACLU complaint speaks in terms of the Lemon test (purpose, effect, entanglement), AG Sessions's principles don't mention the case. The principles instead discuss the Establishment Clause barely (privileging free exercise) and only in terms of "establishing a religion and coercing Americans to follow it," "restrict[ing] government from interfering [in religion]," "prohibit[ing] government from officially favoring or disfavoring particular religious groups," and "neutrality towards religion."
In other words, AG Sessions's principles back off the Establishment Clause concerns about religious purpose and effect, and even excessive entanglement, and instead emphasize only more blunt forms of government establishment of religion (and downplay even those, in favor of free exercise concerns). It's thus hardly a surprise that HHS would issue these interim final rules, even with a religious purpose and effect: they fall squarely within AG Sessions's free exercise interpretation, and do not violate his (lesser important) establishment interpretation.
In yet other words, these interim regs are just a preview of what's to come under the Sessions approach to religion.