Good D.C. Circuit Ruling on ACA Contraception Mandate Opt-Out Rule

  • November 20, 2014

The influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently rejected legal claims by religious nonprofits asserting that even the minimal requirements for opting out of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate violate their religious freedom rights.

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Building

DC Circuit Court of Appeals Building

The ACA requires employer-provided health insurance to cover all FDA- approved prescription contraception at no cost to employees.  Houses of worship and other sectarian institutions are wholly exempted from this requirement.  And religiously-affiliated organizations may opt out of the contraceptive mandate by merely submitting a one-page form or otherwise providing notice to its health plan issuer or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  In that circumstance, the health insurance company or a third-party administrator pays for and administers the coverage.

Despite this nominal requirement, plaintiffs in the case called Priests for Life v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claim that it “substantially burdens” their religious exercise in violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).  They assert that the opt-out notice requirement “triggers” substitute coverage and thereby – makes them “conduits” for providing contraception coverage in violation of their religious beliefs.

The Court soundly rejected this claim.  It found that the filing of the form excuses plaintiffs “… from playing any role in the provision of contraception services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms.”  And it further determined that the ACA  - not the opt-out notice -obligates health insurance companies or HHS through third-party administrators to provide contraception coverage.  As a result, the Court correctly concluded that:

Religious objectors do not suffer substantial burdens under RFRA where the only harm to them is that they sincerely feel aggrieved by their inability to prevent what other people do to fulfill regulatory objectives after they opt out.  They have no RFRA right to be free from the unease, or even anguish, of knowing that third parties are legally privileged or obligated to act in ways their religion abhors.

The Court also determined that the contraception requirement advances the compelling interests of “public health and gender equality” and the opt-out rule is the least restrictive way to achieve these  interests because it “requires as little as it can from the objectors while still serving the government’s compelling state interests.”

The Court’s decision appropriately references the reality of our nation’s religiously diverse workforce, stating “[r]eligious nonprofits like Plaintiff organizations employ millions of Americans -- including individuals who do not share their beliefs.”   Given this diversity and our pluralistic democracy, the Court’s decision strikes the right balance between religious liberty and civil rights.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court’s disturbing Hobby Lobby decision,  the Court in this case properly recognized the true legislative intent of RFRA: to shield to religious practice -- not to serve as a sword to impose religious beliefs on others.