Ruling that the Obama administration has gone as far as it needed to avoid intruding on the religious beliefs of non-profit colleges, hospitals, and charities, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday upheld the latest version of the birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The decision is one of several by federal courts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, giving for-profit businesses owned by a small group of religiously devout individuals an exemption from the mandate.
The new rulings are coming in the second round of challenges — by non-profit religious institutions. The first of those cases has already reached the Supreme Court in the case of University of Notre Dame v. Burwell — a case that could be ready for the Justices to consider during the current Term. The government is due to reply to the appeal in that case early next month.
The D.C. Circuit, in a unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel, noted that the non-profit entities are given something under the ACA that was denied to business firms — a chance to opt out of the requirement that they provide their female employees, at no cost, with a range of contraceptive services, including birth-control pills.
Under current regulations, including revisions that the administration made last summer following the Hobby Lobby decision, a religious non-profit institution has the choice of either writing a letter to the government or filing a two-page form, declaring that it has a religious objection to the mandate.
Such a notice to the government will then mean that the insurance company or other entity providing health coverage for that institution’s employees then has to take on the duty of providing the contraceptive coverage, at no cost to the institution or to the employees, and with no further action by the institution.
In the case before the D.C. Circuit, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and several of its affiliated organizations — including Catholic University — contended that the supposed accommodation does not go far enough to protect their religious freedom, because the filing of any notice “triggers” the availability of the very service to which they object as a matter of religious faith.
Rejecting that argument, the D.C. Circuit panel said that it is the ACA’s mandate, not any action of the institution, that imposes the obligation and puts it in motion to provide the challenged services.
“The challenged regulations,” the opinion said, “do not impose a substantial burden on [the Catholic institutions’] religious exercise” under the protection of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The panel referred to the notice requirement as a “bit of paperwork,” and said it requires less than non-profit organizations normally have to do to comply “with law in the modern administrative state.”
Once they claim the exemption, the court said, they “are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraceptive services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms.”
The ACA itself, and government regulations imposing the birth-control mandate, the decision said, goes as far as they could to accommodate religious belief without giving up the chance for female employees at religious institutions to have access to all of the mandated services.
The decision was written by Circuit Judge Cornelia T.A. Pillard, and was joined in full by Circuit Judges Judith W. Rogers and Robert L. Wilkins. Judges Pillard and Wilkins are among the judges who most recently joined the D.C. Circuit. The ruling was Judge Pillard’s first in a major case.