A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit today upheld the contraception coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act as it applies to religious nonprofits. The unanimous opinion in Priests For Life v. HHS was written by Obama nominee Nina Pillard.
Like in Hobby Lobby, the attack was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), under which any law imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained only if it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government purpose. But unlike Hobby Lobby, this case involves religious nonprofits rather than for-profit corporations. The law does not exclude the employees of religious nonprofits from its protection, but it does allow an accommodation so the employees can get the coverage without their employers having to contract, arrange, or pay for it. Instead, the employers simply tell the insurer or the federal government of their objection, at which point the insurer must offer the coverage separately to employees who want it. But some religious nonprofits assert that even the accommodation violates their religious liberty.
In contrast to Justice Alito and his far right colleagues in Hobby Lobby, Pillard devotes significant attention to why the ACA contraception coverage requirement is so vitally important. She writes:
The contraceptive coverage requirement derives from the ACA’s prioritization of preventive care, and from Congress’ recognition that such care has often been modeled on men’s health needs and thus left women underinsured. As discussed below, Congress included the Women’s Health Amendment in the ACA to remedy the problem that women were paying significantly more out of pocket for preventive care and thus often failed to seek preventive services, including consultations, prescriptions, and procedures relating to contraception. The medical evidence prompting the contraceptive coverage requirement showed that even minor obstacles to obtaining contraception led to more unplanned and risky pregnancies, with attendant adverse effects on women and their families.
She then explains how the regulations don’t impose a substantial burden on the employers’ religious exercise. They have no role whatsoever in the provision of contraception that they oppose. In addition, it isn’t the employer’s use of the accommodation that triggers the women’s right to coverage; their right was triggered by Congress when it passed the ACA. Pillard gets to the nub of this effort to use religious liberty as a sword to diminish the rights of others:
Religious objectors do not suffer substantial burdens under RFRA where the only harm to them is that they sincerely feel aggrieved by their inability to prevent what other people would do to fulfill regulatory objectives after they opt out. They have no RFRA right to be free from the unease, or even anguish, of knowing that third parties are legally privileged or obligated to act in ways their religion abhors.
This will not be the last word on the matter. The same issue is being heard in other courts around the country, and the final disposition will almost certainly be by the Supreme Court.