Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Supreme Court Upholds Expanded Exemptions From ACA Contraceptive Coverage Mandate

In a 7-2 decision in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, (Sup. Ct., July 8, 2020), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected challenges to the Trump Administration's expanded exemptions from the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate.  The challenged rules allowed employers with religious exemptions and most employers with moral objections to opt out of furnishing coverage. Justice Thomas' majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh held that the ACA gives the relevant federal departments authority to provide these exemptions from the contraceptive mandate. It went on:
The Departments also contend, consistent with the reasoning in the 2017 IFR and the 2018 final rule establishing the religious exemption, that RFRA  independently compelled the Departments’ solution or that it at least authorized it.  In light of our holding that the ACA provided a basis for both exemptions, we need not reach these arguments. We do, however, address respondents’ argument that the Departments could not even consider RFRA as they formulated the religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate. Particularly in the context of these cases, it was appropriate for the Departments to consider RFRA.
The Court also rejects challenges to the procedural process used to adopt the rules-- including the claim that the Departments did not maintain an open mind in considering comments on the rules before their adoption in final form, saying in part:
We decline to evaluate the final rules under the open-mindedness test. We have repeatedly stated that the text of the APA provides the “‘maximum procedural requirements’” that an agency must follow in order to promulgate a rule.
Justice Alito, joined by Justice Gorsuch, filed a concurring opinion, saying in part:
I would hold not only that it was appropriate for the Departments to consider RFRA, but also that the Departments were required by RFRA to create the religious exemption (or something very close to it). I would bring the Little Sisters’ legal odyssey to an end.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment, filing an opinion agreeing that the Departments had statutory authority to differentiate among health plans, but concluding that petitioner's challenge that the Departments' actions were arbitrary and capricious remain open upon remand:
That issue is now ready for resolution, unaffected by today’s decision.  An agency acting within its sphere of delegated authority can of course flunk the test of “reasoned decision making.”... The agency does so when it has not given “a satisfactory explanation for its action” .... Assessed against that standard of reasonableness, the exemptions ... give every appearance of coming up short.
Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Sotomayor, saying in part:
In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs.... Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree.
CNN reports on the decision.