Yet another appeals court has issued an opinion about a for-profit corporation’s challenge to the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate requires employee health care plans to contain preventive care coverage that includes FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. This time, the D.C. Circuit ruled in Gilardi v. HHS that the Gilardis, two Catholic brothers who own Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics and oppose contraception, sterilization and abortion, are entitled to a preliminary injunction because they are likely to succeed on their claim that the mandate violates their free exercise rights as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.” The D.C. Circuit’s action is consistent with the Tenth Circuit’s ruling that the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby demonstrated that the mandate substantially burdened its exercise of religion, but at odds with rulings against secular, for-profit companies and for the government by the Third and Sixth Circuits.
One aspect of Gilardi is distinctive. Although the Third and Sixth Circuits, ruling for the government, decided that for-profit, secular corporations cannot exercise religion under either the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA, the Tenth Circuit, in support of Hobby Lobby, determined that such corporations are persons who can exercise religion under RFRA. The D.C. Circuit offered a hybrid. Although two judges – Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph – ruled that the Freshway Companies are not persons under either the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA, they nonetheless held that the Gilardis could bring suit because the Freshway Companies are closely held corporations with only the two brothers as owners and shareholders. In that context, the court decided, the brothers suffered a concrete and personal injury and could likely prove that their religion was substantially burdened by the mandate.
The diverse circuit court rulings risk turning the contraceptive mandate issue into a debate over corporate form and institutional rights. If corporations engage in speech under the First Amendment – Citizens United – why can’t they exercise religion?
Liberty University v. Lew, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision about the Affordable Care Act [ACA], should please no one. The opinion demonstrates the dangers of exempting religious organizations and individuals from the law. Take your pick. The court either exempted too many, or too few. Its middle ground unsatisfactorily addresses the First Amendment challenges to the Act.
Individual plaintiffs and Liberty University opposed the individual and employer mandates of the ACA. The individual mandate requires individuals to obtain minimum essential health care coverage or pay a penalty in their taxes. The employer mandate requires employers to provide affordable minimal essential health care coverage to full-time employees or face a tax penalty.
All plaintiffs are Christians morally opposed to abortion except to save the life of the mother. The most straightforward of their complaints alleged that their mandated insurance payments would wind up paying for abortions in violation of their constitutional and statutory rights. This is the simplest exemption argument in the case: plaintiffs think they should be exempt from the ACA because it burdens their religion.
The court quickly dismissed that argument. Under the Free Exercise Clause, it ruled, the ACA is a neutral law of general applicability that applies to everyone without singling out religions for disfavor. Moreover, the court decided, plaintiffs’ religion was not burdened by the mandates. Although plaintiffs alleged that their money would be used for abortion, other provisions of the ACA required that a plan without abortion coverage would always be available as a choice for consumers. Without a substantial burden on religion, neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religion without a compelling government interest) was violated.
The Obama administration recently offered more accommodations to the religious employers who oppose women’s reproductive freedom and seek exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employee insurance coverage extend to contraception and sterilization. The employers won two big victories. First, the definition of religious employer was expanded to include not only organizations where everyone shares one faith but also those that employ or provide services to individuals who are not members of the same religious community. Second, the employers will not have to provide the coverage. Instead, the insurance companies will independently contact employees and make separate contraceptive policies available to them at no charge. The insurance companies will cover the costs of this new arrangement and, presumably, pass them on to other consumers.
The new rules are responsive to repeated and vociferous complaints about the president’s war on religion. As soon as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, first announced that religious employers would be expected to provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage at no cost to employees, the nation’s Catholic bishops attacked the president for his unprecedented assault on religious freedom. Those critics ignored the fact that the idea of requiring employers to protect women’s equality by providing insurance was not new or unprecedented. Twenty-six states have similar laws, and the highest courts of New York and California upheld their women’s contraceptive equity statutes against First Amendment claims.
With the federal act currently under challenge in 45 lawsuits, however, the administration chose to compromise rather than to press the legality of its actions on behalf of women’s equality. The strategy of compromise has been unsuccessful. Even the new accommodations have not satisfied the administration’s critics. The Catholic bishops still believethat the president should compromise even more by extending the exemption to secular, for-profit corporations run by religious individuals. And Kyle Duncan, the general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has sponsored much of the litigation against the mandate, stated that the new rules do “nothing to protect the religious freedom of millions of Americans.”