Yesterday, I evaluated the unprecedented arguments, by the plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell and its companion cases, that the process for seeking a religious exemption from the contraceptive-coverage regulations itself burdened the objectors’ religious exericse. Today, I move to a more basic question: Are these idiosyncratic claims sincere?
Like all free-exercise provisions, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects only sincere religious beliefs; it does not permit challengers to cloak ideological or financial objections in religious garb. Insincerity can reveal itself in several ways: prior inconsistent conduct, claims that are suspiciously timed, or outright admissions of an ulterior motive. The RFRA challenges to the contraceptive coverage regulations—and especially the accommodation—have presented several of these elements. But the government, in resisting these RFRA challenges, has not challenged the plaintiffs’ sincerity.
That said, there are several reasons to doubt the sincerity of several plaintiffs’ claims, and to see these lawsuits as an exercise in politics arising from broader conservative and religious opposition to the Obama administration’s positions on issues such as healthcare reform, stem cell research, abortion, and marriage equality. This apparent insincerity provides yet another reason to reject the latest round of RFRA challenges to the contraceptive accommodation.
Birth control is back at the high court. On March 23, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Zubik v. Burwell and its six companion cases. Despite what you may have heard, religious objectors—whether they are nuns or Notre Dame—are not required to distribute birth control. On the contrary, an accommodation enables religious objectors to opt out of offering contraceptive coverage to their employees; once the objectors request the accommodation, the government arranges for the objectors’ insurance companies or plan administrators to provide the coverage—at no cost to either the objectors or their students and employees. But does this accommodation itself violate objectors’ free-exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
No, say eight of the nine federal appeals courts to consider the question. These courts have rejected the argument that by opting out of providing contraceptive coverage, objectors’ religious exercise is substantially burdened because the government arranges for a third party to pick up the slack. Read More
That’s how Tara Murtha describes the lawsuit brought by Real Alternatives and its three (male) employees seeking to enjoin application of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage regulations. This lawsuit is different than the ones currently before the Supreme Court: Real Alternatives is not a religious organization, and its employees argue that the mere availability of contraceptive coverage in their own plans violates their rights under RFRA—even though nobody is making them use that coverage.
The plaintiffs are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal organization that has also represented many of the for-profit corporations and nonprofit religious organizations bringing free-exercise challenges to the coverage regulations and accommodation. Unlike most of ADF’s other clients in these cases, Real Alternatives acknowledges that its opposition to the coverage regulations arises purely from its opposition to the use of birth control; there is no claimed religious basis for this opposition.
Today the Supreme Court granted review in seven challenges to the accommodation offered to those with religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage regulations. I won’t rehash my earlierposts about why I (and seven of eight federal appeals courts) think that these challenges, brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are bunk. For now, a few observations about the cases and today’s cert grants:
1. These cases involve challenges to a religious accommodation, not the coverage requirement itself. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court said that the government couldn’t enforce the contraceptive coverage regulations against for-profit corporations with religious objections. The Court pointed to a less-restrictive alternative: the accommodation, offered to nonprofit organizations, through which the organization submits a written objection and government arranges for the objector’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to either the objector or its employees. The plaintiffs in these cases are challenging the accommodation itself. By analogy, this is like a conscientious objector challenging the process for opting out of the draft.
2. Oddly enough, Hobby Lobby didn’t officially resolve RFRA challenges to the accommodation. You might think that since the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby pointed to the accommodation as the less-restrictive alternative, then the Court must have also made clear that the accommodation itself complied with RFRA. But the majority opinion did not do so. Instead, after pointing to the accommodation as a less-restrictive alternative, the majority said, “We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.”
3. And/But: Justice Kennedy, the deciding vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested more clearly that the accommodation complies with RFRA. Although he joined the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy also wrote separately and appeared to bless the accommodation. Here’s what he said:
“That accommodation equally furthers the Government’s interest but does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”
“Yet neither may that same [free exercise] unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here.”
If Justice Kennedy holds to his view in Hobby Lobby, then the plaintiffs in these cases will probably lose.
4. Although the plaintiffs in these cases are nonprofit organizations, the result will affect employees of for-profit corporations. As instructed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby, the government extended the accommodation to closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. But neither Hobby Lobby nor the other for-profit plaintiffs have said that they will accept the accommodation, and most of them are represented by the same organizations representing the nonprofit challengers to the accommodation. So if the Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the accommodation as applied to nonprofit organizations, employees of objecting for-profit corporations will almost certainly go entirely without contraceptive coverage as well.
5. “[Y]ou are not entitled to your own facts….” Today the Becket Fund, which represents Little Sisters of the Poor and several other plaintiffs, issued a press release entitled “High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives.” This is false—full stop. Under the accommodation, contraceptives are provided by the employer’s insurance company or plan administrator; employers aren’t paying for the insurance coverage, let alone handing out the insurance coverage, let alone handing out contraceptives themselves. Whether or not you think that the accommodation resolves employers’ religious objections, it is simply not true that—as a matter of fact—objecting nuns are required “to provide contraceptives.” (This is not, I should add, the first time that the Becket Fund has made this claim in a press release.) I will be curious to see whether Becket Fund repeats this claim in its briefs to the Court.
Thomas Jefferson famously said that “[i]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Note what Jefferson did not say: “my neighbor is entitled to pick my pocket and break my leg, so long as the government can refill my pocket and pay for a cast on my leg.”
But the latter formulation seemed to influence last week’s Eighth Circuit ruling that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bars the government from implementing an accommodation for employers with religious objections to including contraception in their health plans. In my previous post, I explained why the Eighth Circuit reduced RFRA’s substantial-burden requirement to a mere formality, potentially subjecting any and every federal law or regulation to strict scrutiny. Once things get to strict scrutiny, the Eighth Circuit goes even further, suggesting that a federal regulation cannot be sustained if the government could, in theory, provide the benefit or service itself.
The Eighth Circuit first applied this approach to the process by which employers obtain the religious exemption. Under the current rules, an objecting organization need only send a written notice to the government and identify its insurance provider or third-party administrator; the government then works with the insurance provider or third-party administrator to arrange for the employees to receive the contraceptive coverage to which they are entitled by law.
The Eighth Circuit, however, reasoned that there is a less-restrictive alternative to requiring this information, since the government could identify the necessary insurance providers and third-party administrators on its own—well, maybe: “Even if the [third-party administrators] are not known, the government has not shown at this stage of the proceedings that the inconvenience of identifying the [third-party administrators] likely would create an administrative problem of sufficient magnitude to make its entire scheme unworkable.” According to the Eighth Circuit, then, no disclosure requirement can be sustained unless the government can prove that it would be unable to discover the information after its own investigation.
On Thursday, the Eighth Circuit all but assured that major parts of the Affordable Care Act will return to the Supreme Court’s chopping block. This time the issue is whether an accommodation—enabling religious objectors to opt out of offering contraceptive coverage to their employees—itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Eighth Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs in Sharpe Holdings, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with a companion case brought by Dordt College. The court concluded that the accommodation substantially burdened plaintiffs’ religious exercise and that the accommodation was not the least-restrictive means of ensuring that the plaintiffs’ employees had contraceptive coverage.
The Eighth Circuit’s substantial-burden ruling is unprecedented. Indeed, the contraception coverage cases appear to be the first time that exempted entities have sued to prevent the government from implementing a religious exemption. Like the other nonprofit organizations challenging the contraception regulations, the plaintiffs in this case are not required to cover contraceptives. All they have to do is provide written notice (to either their plan administrator or the Department of Health and Human Services) that they object to providing contraceptive coverage and wish to opt out. Once they provide that notice, the government arranges for the plan administrator to arrange for contraceptive coverage—at no charge to either the plaintiffs or their employees.
The plaintiffs insist that by opting out of providing contraceptive coverage, they “indirectly provide, trigger, and facilitate that objectionable coverage through the … accommodation process.” Every other federal appeals court to have addressed these challenges—even courts as conservative as the Fifth Circuit—has rejected this argument. Indeed, the plaintiffs are being asked to do what they have already done voluntarily: state, in writing, that they object to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And it is the HHS regulations, not the plaintiffs’ written notice, that facilitates the provision of contraceptive coverage to plaintiffs’ employees.
This is the third and (I promise) final installment in my skirmish with Josh Blackman over a brief that he and Cato Institute filed in support of Little Sisters of the Poor’s quixotic challenge to regulations requiring them to fill out a form to obtain an exemption from providing contraceptive coverage to its employees. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you can do so here (my first post), here (Josh’s response to me), here (my first reply to Josh), and here (Josh’s second response to me). The basic gist is that, contrary to Cato’s brief, (1) HHS had the authority to implement the nonprofit accommodation, and (2) if HHS didn’t have the authority to issue the accommodation, then Hobby Lobby no longer controls whether the original contraceptive coverage requirement satisfies RFRA, because the Court in Hobby Lobby pointed to the HHS accommodation as the basis for concluding that a less-restrictive alternative exists.
Now, on to Josh’s most recent response.
First, Josh suggests that he’s not actually assuming away the basis of Hobby Lobby, because the HHS nonprofit accommodation could still in theory be enacted by Congress; even if HHS lacked the authority to issue the nonprofit accommodation, he says, it would still constitute a less-restrictive means and thus lead to the same result in Hobby Lobby (such that the Supreme Court can dodge the question in Little Sisters).
But that’s not right either. The premise of Hobby Lobby was that the less-restrictive alternative was existing and on the books; the accommodation was one that “HHS has already devised and implemented.” The Court added: “[W]e need not rely on the option of a new, government-funded program in order to conclude that the HHS regulations fail the least-restrictive-means test. HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs.” Justice Kennedy, the decisive vote, added that “the mechanism for [accommodating the plaintiffs] is already in place.” (All emphases added by me.)
Josh Blackman has replied to my post criticizing the Cato Institute’s amicus brief (which Josh coauthored) in support of the cert petition in the Little Sisters contraception case. My original post made two arguments: (1) if you take away the nonprofit accommodation, Hobby Lobby no longer supplies a rule of decision, because the presence of the nonprofit accommodation was what led the Court to conclude that RFRA barred the coverage requirement, and (2) if you prevent regulatory agencies from offering reasonable, tailored accommodations to their regulations, the result is bad for religious liberty.
Two brief comment on Josh’s reply.
First, on the question of agency authority to issue religious accommodations, Josh incorrectly suggests that I miss a subtelty in his argument. Josh/Cato say that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has authority to issue religious accommodations, but that it may not decide “which organizations were worthy of the exemption, and which would be burdened by the accommodation.” I address this argument in my original post: the Cato brief assumes that religious accommodations are all-or-nothing, but that is not how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) works. RFRA details when accommodations are available and when they are not (and the Establishment Clause limits accommodations that unduly harm third parties). So an agency (HHS, or otherwise) cannot, as a practical matter, offer accommodations without determining who is eligible for that accommodation and who is not. As I said in my original post, Cato “would force agencies to choose between a bludgeon and no tools at all, even when the agency would need a scalpel to craft religious accommodations consistent with RFRA.”
Fresh off its unsuccessful attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act in King v. Burwell, the Cato Institute is back for more. This time, Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Supreme Court review in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell. This is one of the many, many (many) challenges brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by nonprofit organizations to an accommodation, offered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), exempting religious nonprofits from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. To take advantage of the accommodation, nonprofits need only provide written notice to the government of their objection and the name of their insurance provider or plan administrator. At that point, the government arranges for the nonprofit organization’s insurance company or plan administrator to provide the coverage at no cost to the nonprofit or its employees.
These RFRA challenges to the nonprofit accommodation have been rejected by all seven federal appeals courts to address them. But in this brief backing the challenge by Little Sisters, Cato asks the Supreme Court to dodge the RFRA question entirely, claiming that the case “can be resolved without further engaging in the delicate analysis required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Instead, Cato makes the following argument: (1) in light of King v. Burwell’s statements about agency deference, HHS had no authority to offer religious accommodations to its own regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act, and (2) without a religious accommodation, the contraceptive coverage requirement is unenforceable against nonprofit organizations with religious objections.
Cato seeks—in the name of religious liberty!—to prevent regulatory agencies from granting accommodations to entities with religious objections to regulations, and then argues that the absence of religious accommodation makes the underlying regulations unenforceable against religious objectors. Cato’s curious argument suffers from two serious flaws.
Since the likelihood is that many readers of this blog will be asked to comment when the Supreme Court, some time this week, announces its decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialty cases here’s a brief refresher and some links. The cases are challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who choose to offer health insurance to their employees must provide policies that include ten essential benefits-including contraception. The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments and read the briefs—it’s likely that whatever opinion is issued will reflect at least some of the arguments presented to the Court.
This case is about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers who offer their employees health insurance must include ten essential benefits, including contraception. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are privately held, for-profit companies whose owners have sincerely held religious objections to providing four specific kinds of contraception. They believe these contraceptives terminate rather than prevent pregnancy. Many religious organizations and companies have gotten exemptions to these requirements, but this case considers whether private, for-profit companies should qualify as well.
The cases raise three major issues:
Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply to corporations even though it uses the word “person?” (Can companies have religious beliefs?)
Is providing insurance that covers birth control a “substantial burden?” on these two company’s’ religious beliefs?
Does the government have a compelling reason for requiring companies that provide insurance to have it cover birth control?