Pay No Attention to Those Tens of Thousands of Women Affected by the Contraception Litigation

Photo: Hobby Lobby
Flickr/Creative Commons—m01229

By Gregory M. Lipper

In her latest column, Linda Greenhouse predicts that the Supreme Court’s order in Zubik v. Burwell will not produce the desired happy compromise between the government and the religious organizations who object to the government’s arranging for their students and staff to receive contraceptive coverage from third parties. Towards the end, Greenhouse also describes how the objectors have inaccurately insisted that these cases are about nuns and only nuns—ignoring the dozens of other plaintiffs whose students and staff number in the tens of thousands—and how legal commentators (some of whom should know better) have gone along:

[T]here is a widespread misunderstanding that the case is about nuns, specifically the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order whose mission is to run nursing homes for the elderly poor. Commentary following last week’s decision perpetuated this misunderstanding. “Surely the Obama administration could find a way to provide contraception to women without involving a group of Catholic nuns,” Ramesh Ponneru, a senior editor of National Review, wrote in a Bloomberg News post titled “The Culture War Obama Didn’t Have to Wage.” Richard W. Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote on Scotusblog that the Obama administration had “aggressively and unlawfully overreached” in its “strange insistence that a community of nuns who take vows of poverty and care for the elderly poor must serve as a vehicle for delivering free contraception to their employees.” In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Big Win for Little Sisters,” William McGurn wrote that “though it was more a TKO than a straight-up ruling, the Little Sisters prevailed at the Supreme Court Monday in their fight against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.”

This single-minded focus on Little Sisters of the Poor—which itself employs hundreds of people of different religious faiths in multiple states—overlooked the tens of thousands of women who will lose contraceptive coverage if the objectors prevail:

By my count, the Little Sisters of the Poor (who, as I’ve noted before, advertise themselves as equal-opportunity employers in the nursing home enterprise) are only one of 30 petitioners in the seven Supreme Court cases. The other 29 include Catholic and Baptist colleges, Catholic high schools, individual bishops, two chapters of Catholic Charities, other charities, and several individuals.

If anything, there are more objectors and more affected women than even Greenhouse suggests.

Read More

Religion or Women?

In response to the religious objections levied against the contraceptives coverage mandate at issue in Hobby Lobby, Zubik, and gobs of other cases, many have argued that this was really a matter of subjugating women – not about religion per se.  Well, now we have a test case: Vermont’s governor just signed into law a requirement that public and private health insurance cover vasectomies without copays and deductibles. There won’t be the same arguments about abortifacients here, but many religious employers should object just the same, if they’re being consistent. Now let’s watch and see…

What to Expect When You’re Expecting at Least Another Year of Contraception Litigation

Photo: Zubik Rally
Tim Ritz/Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

In a unanimous, unsigned order hailed as “an almost hilariously brazen punt,” the Supreme Court sent Zubik v. Burwell and the other contraception cases back to the lower courts for further consideration. The order states that, in light of the supplemental briefs submitted at the Court’s request, the parties should have “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.’”

That, of course, describes the current accommodation, which the Court in 2014 touted as a compromise that protected women’s interests while relieving religious objectors’ of any burdens created by the previous requirement that they provide and pay for the coverage themselves. But the Court, likely split 4–4 on whether even that accommodation complies with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, wants the parties to see if they can compromise further without subjecting women to second-class care.

These cases will almost certainly return to the Supreme Court, which may or may not have nine members by that time. But in the meantime, things are up in the air—especially for affected women:

1. The Court decided—nothing. Although objectors’ lawyers claimed victory, even the most nimble of advocates would struggle to identify an actual victory from an order that “expresses no view on the merits of the cases.” Lest any misunderstanding persist, the Court reiterated that it took no position on any of the underlying legal questions:

In particular, the court does not decide [1] whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, [2] whether the Government has a compelling interest, or [3] whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.

Those questions will be decided again by the Courts of Appeals, all but one of which has already ruled against the objectors. A victory this is not.

Read More

SCOTUS and More Surprises on Zubik

After the 2014 SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby, in which a closely-held for-profit employer won the argument that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected it against enforcement of the government’s contraceptives coverage mandate, all eyes have been on what SCOTUS would do in response to a challenge to the very same accommodation it toyed with as a less restrictive alternative in that case.  The Court agreed to hear a consolidated set of challenges to the accommodation brought by several religious non-profit employers who seek outright exemption from the mandate (under the case name Zubik et al.) – but then Justice Scalia passed away, leaving the Court with the unpalatable prospect of a 4-4 decision.

SCOTUS has pulled a few tricks out of its hat to avoid that possibility.  First, it surprised us by seeking supplemental briefs on a possible compromise solution, which would ostensibly allow women to access contraceptives (as the government desires) while not burdening the religious employers (as they desire).  The parties basically responded, as politely as would be expected, that some compromise was indeed possible – but not on terms the other could or would actually accept.  Nonetheless, today, SCOTUS surprised us again – seeing enough glimmer of a possible compromise to decline to decide the cases on the merits, instead returning them to the lower courts to work something out.

So what does that mean?  In my view, count it as a win for the government.  Eight out of nine circuit courts ruled in the government’s favor below, holding that the accommodation it had already offered did not substantially burden employers’ religious beliefs – which means that RFRA’s further protection, demanding a compelling government interest satisfied in the least restrictive way, does not even get triggered. These courts have no reason to change that determination now.  Even if there is a compromise that would be less burdensome on religious employers (which I don’t think there is), such a compromise is not required under RFRA unless there is a substantial burden.  And SCOTUS hasn’t said there is.

What we have here is, ironically, precisely the same result we’d have had if SCOTUS had issued a 4-4 decision.  The lower court opinions will almost certainly stand, and we’ll likely still have a bit of a circuit split. So now, we wait on a new president.  The Donald would presumably destroy the ACA/mandate entirely, whereas Hillary would hopefully be able to deliver a ninth justice that will recognize RFRA’s reasonable limits.  Religious freedom is critically important, but so too is accepting the government’s dramatic efforts to be accommodating, short of letting every religious believer be an island unto himself.

Elizabeth Sepper on ‘The Week in Health Law’ Podcast

By Nicolas Terry and Frank Pasquale

 

This week we interviewed Elizabeth Sepper, Associatetwihl 5x5 Professor of Law at Washington University. Elizabeth’s work explores the interaction of morality, professional ethics, and law in health care and insurance. She has written extensively on conscientious refusals to provide reproductive and end-of-life healthcare In recent work, Elizabeth has argued that, in resisting compliance with antidiscrimination laws, pharmacy regulations, and insurance mandates (most prominently, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate), businesses make claims more reminiscent of market libertarianism than of religious freedom.

Our conversation covered many aspects of conscience claims by contemporary health providers. Our timing was perfect, since HHS just finalized a rule on one of Elizabeth’s areas of expertise: prohibitions on discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. Elizabeth weighed in on the rule and its implications for the future of health care.

The Week in Health Law Podcast from Frank Pasquale and Nicolas Terry is a commuting-length discussion about some of the more thorny issues in Health Law & Policy. Subscribe at iTunes, listen at Stitcher RadioTunein and Podbean, or search for The Week in Health Law in your favorite podcast app. Show notes and more are at TWIHL.com. If you have comments, an idea for a show or a topic to discuss you can find us on twitter @nicolasterry @FrankPasquale @WeekInHealthLaw

The Zubik Supplemental Briefs: The Objectors Push for Second-Class Coverage, With a Smile

Photo: Supreme Court rally
Tim Ritz/Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

The first set of supplemental briefs in Zubik v. Burwell is in. The government seems willing to accept a modified version of the Court’s proposed compromise—if it means that the Court will halt the neverending legal challenges to the contraceptive-coverage regulations. The religious objectors, however, merely purport to accept the Court’s proposal; in practice, they are standing by their insistance that affected women should be forced to seek and obtain second-class, contraception-only policies that will sever their reproductive care from the rest of their healthcare. And they reserve the right to use the political process to oppose the creation of even those second-class plans.

Recall that the Court proposed a modified version of the government’s accommodation. The Court proposed that rather than provide separate written notice in order to become exempt from the coverage regulations, objectors coud simply “inform their insurance company that they do not want their health plan to include contraceptive coverage of the type to which they object on religious grounds”; at that point, and as contemplated by the existing accommodation, the insurance companies “would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.” (If you want more detail, here’s my earlier coverage of the Court’s order.) Read More

Little Sisters’ Case: A Forgotten Voice

By: Matthew Ryan

I love the Little Sisters of the Poor. As an undergraduate student, I fulfilled my public health program’s service requirements by volunteering at their nursing home in St. Louis. Each week, I would drive from my pristine, Jesuit college campus to the neglected part of the city. The sisters’ home was on an abandoned block without a street sign. The sister’s “neighbors” were a few burnt-out homes and mostly over-grown lots.

Inside, the nuns housed and loved the most vulnerable. I volunteered on the floor with residents suffering from dementia. I remember one nun in particular, Sister Isabella, who had given her entire life to caring for our elderly poor. Every hour or so, Sister Isabella would greet one resident who could no longer speak audibly nor open her eyes. Sister Isabella would hug her, sing to her, and often take her outside to feel the sunshine. This, in addition, to cleaning up after the residents, leading prayer before meals, and ensuring each resident got out of his or her bed each day.

Sister Isabella—and the Little Sisters in general—have remained imprinted in my memory. They have been a tremendous example to follow. When the rest of society, many Catholic churches included, had given up on the “least of our brothers and sisters,” the Little Sisters quietly went about doing the work of God. My admiration for them has made the recent Supreme Court case—and the battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage—all the more difficult. Read More

About that Order for Supplemental Briefing in Zubik v. Burwell

Photo: Pen & Parchment
Flickr/Creative Commons—Christa Uymatiao

By Gregory M. Lipper

This afternoon the Supreme Court requested supplemental briefing in Zubik v. Burwell and the other challenges to the contraceptive-coverage accommodation, as follows: “The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs that address whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”

And in so doing, the Court offered a proposal of its own (I’ve added paragraph breaks and numbering):

[1] For example, the parties should consider a situation in which petitioners would contract to provide health insurance for their employees, and in the course of obtaining such insurance, inform their insurance company that they do not want their health plan to include contraceptive coverage of the type to which they object on religious grounds.

[2] Petitioners would have no legal obligation to provide such contraceptive coverage, would not pay for such coverage, and would not be required to submit any separate notice to their insurer, to the Federal Government, or to their employees.

[3] At the same time, petitioners’ insurance company—aware that petitioners are not providing certain contraceptive coverage on religious grounds—would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.

Although it’s foolish to read tea leaves, read them I shall:

1. I think that this is a decent sign for the government. It was clear from last week’s argument that four Justices would vote to uphold the accommodation; but the potential fifth vote, Justice Kennedy, seemed to be skeptical of the government’s arguments. This order suggests that at least five Justices (including Justice Kennedy) seem to think that the challengers’ proposed alternatives to the accommodation (create separate, contraceptive-only policies and require women to seek them out; expand Title X clinics; and other Rube Goldberg-schemes) harm women by preventing them from receiving seamless and convenient coverage. If the Court thought that those other alternatives were sufficient, then it wouldn’t be looking for a way to ensure that women retained accommodation-style seamless coverage.

Read More

The Economist on Contraceptive Coverage and Misleading Metaphors

By Gregory M. Lipper

The Economist is not buying the challengers’ claim that the provision of contraceptive coverage—by third parties—is an act of “hijacking”:

When the government arranges for contraceptive coverage with the insurance company used by the religious charity, it is not commandeering anybody’s property. Nor is it taking metaphorical control of the group’s health insurance plan. Instead, the government is seeking to fulfil Obamacare’s near-universal guarantee to female employees by working with the same insurance company or third-party plan administrator that provides the rest of the employee’s health benefits. Neither the insurance company nor the plan is the property of the religious charity: Aetna is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Catholic Charities. The non-profit and the insurer are independent entities.  When a school brings a child to a playground that his parents (for some reason) opt to avoid, the teachers are not “hijacking” the swingset. They are using a resource for the child’s benefit. The parents may be displeased about the school trip to the forbidden playground, but any complaint they raise would necessarily have a paternalistic flavour. Employers do not have such a role vis-a-vis their employees.

Read the full essay here.

Greg Lipper (@theglipper) is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Zubik v. Burwell Oral Argument

Photo: Zubik v. Burwell Signs
Tim Ritz / Americans United for Separation of Church and State

By Gregory M. Lipper

Over at Rewire, I’ve analyzed yesterday’s oral argument in Zubik v. Burwell. Among other things, I address the recurring claim that the government was “hijacking” religious objectors’ health plans by arranging for third party insurers and plan administrators to provide contraceptive coverage to affected women:

The fear of hijacking might have made sense if we were talking about a plane instead of a plan. But an insurance company is not an employer’s personal property. If the insurance company, separately from the employer, wants to provide extra coverage to the employees, that’s none of the employer’s business—especially since that contraceptive coverage is guaranteed to women by federal law. At the argument, Clement compared the accommodation to the government running a contraception clinic out of the Little Sisters’ home, but the more apt analogy is that the government has set up shop across the street: The challengers simply have no legitimate interest in preventing the government from “hijacking” a nearby vacant lot.

You can read the full article at Rewire’s freshly redesigned website. And more on the “hijacking” argument here.

Greg Lipper (@theglipper) is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.