Tuesday, December 17, 2013

New York Religious Non-Profits Win Injunction Against Obamacare Contraceptive Coverage Rule

In Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York v. Sebelius, (ED NY, Dec. 16, 2013), a New York federal district court granted an injunction to two Catholic schools and two Catholic health care organizations, preventing the federal government from enforcing the Affordable Care Act final contraceptive coverage mandate rules against them.  Under those rules, religious non-profits that do not qualify for a total exemption from the mandate may complete a self-certification form attesting to their religious objections and send that form to their insurer or third party administrator.  The insurer or administrator then-- under rules promulgated under ERISA-- must furnish contraceptive coverage to the non-profit's employees without charge.  In a new twist in this case, however, the government conceded that because all the plans involved in this case are "church plans," regulations under ERISA do not apply to them.

The court held that, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the self-certification requirements in the final contraceptive coverage rules substantially burden the religious exercise of plaintiff organizations, and the government failed to show that these rules are the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest. The court said in part:
As for the self-certification requirement, the Court rejects the Government’s position that plaintiffs may be compelled to perform affirmative acts precluded by their religion if a court deems those acts merely "de minimis." This argument – which essentially reduces to the claim that completing the self-certification places no burden on plaintiffs’ religion because "it’s just a form" – finds no support in the case law....
Plaintiffs’ religious objection is not only to the use of contraceptives, but also to being required to actively participate in a scheme to provide such services. The Government feels that the accommodation sufficiently insulates plaintiffs from the objectionable services, but plaintiffs disagree. Again, it is not the Court’s role to say that plaintiffs are wrong about their religious beliefs.
Finding a substantial burden, the court went on to conclude that the government had not shown a compelling interest to impose the burden:
Tens of millions of people are exempt from the Mandate, under exemptions for grandfathered health plans, small businesses, and "religious employers" like the Diocesan plaintiffs here. Millions of women thus will not receive contraceptive coverage without cost-sharing through the Mandate. Having granted so many exemptions already, the Government cannot show a compelling interest in denying one to these plaintiffs....
Finally, but very significantly, the Government’s belated revelation that the regulations do not even require plaintiffs’ TPAs to provide contraceptive coverage [because they are "church plans"] fatally undermines any claim that imposing the Mandate on these plaintiffs serves a compelling governmental interest.... In other words, the Mandate forces plaintiffs to fill out a form which, though it violates their religious beliefs, may ultimately serve no purpose whatsoever. A law that is totally ineffective cannot serve a compelling interest.
The court also found that numerous less restrictive alternatives are available, such as direct government provision of contraceptive services or insurance, or furnishing of coverage through third parties without requiring the objecting employer's active participation.

While thus granting an injunction to diocese-affiliated schools and health care organizations, the court refused to grant an injunction barring enforcement against the two diocese plaintiffs themselves, because under the final rules they are completely exempt from the mandate.  In doing so, the court rejected the rationale relied upon by a Pennsylvania federal district court last month in granting a preliminary injunction in a similar challenge. (See prior posting.)  The New York court said:
Count VI of the Amended Complaint alleges that the Mandate unconstitutionally interferes with the Catholic Church’s internal governance by "artificially splitting the Catholic Church in two," dividing its religious arm from its charitable and educational arms.... The Mandate does not "split" the Catholic Church in two – it does not require any change to the religious structure, hierarchy or organization of the Church and its affiliated organizations. At most, it could "split" the Church’s health plan in two. The prohibition on interference with internal church governance applies to ecclesiastical matters such as the selection and supervision of ministers by religious authorities, and plaintiffs have not cited any case that even remotely suggests that a health plan may constitute a matter of "internal church governance" protected by the First Amendment.
Newsmax reports on reaction to the decision. [Thanks to Geoff Surtees for the lead.]