The Obama administration continued its winning streak Friday when yet another appeals court ruled in favor of the accommodation offered to religious organizations seeking to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. A panel for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that requiring religious objectors write a letter to the government declaring they seek to opt out contraceptive coverage does not constitute a substantial religious burden.
“In the process, eligible organizations are provided the opportunity to freely express their religious objection to such coverage as well as to extricate themselves from its provision,” the decision, written by Justice Rosemary Pooler, said. “At the same time, insured individuals are not deprived of the benefits of contraceptive coverage.”
Currently, certain religious organizations that say covering contraceptives for their employees’ insurance plans violates their faith have two options to opt out: they can file a Department of Labor form to a third-party administrator or they can send a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services expressing their objection. From there the HHS notifies a third-party administrator, which in turn, sees to it that the employees still get contraceptive coverage but that it is not paid for by the objecting employer. That latter route was created in response to a Supreme Court order after its Hobby Lobby decision in 2014 and finalized last month.
In Friday’s case — as well as other cases across the country — the challengers say that just even notifying the government of their objections violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that employers are still complicit in providing employees birth control they object to as it triggers a process to see to it that employees’ contraceptive care is still covered.
But the 2nd Circuit panel disagreed, becoming the latest in a series of appeals courts to rule against that line of logic.
Key to Friday’s decision was the justices’ argument that just because a challenger says something is a substantial burden on his or her faith, doesn’t make it so and courts must objectively assess what qualifies as a substantial burden.
“If RFRA plaintiffs needed only to assert that their religious beliefs were substantially burdened, federal courts would be reduced to rubber stamps, and the government would have to defend innumerable actions under demanding strict scrutiny analysis,” the decision said.
The challengers in Friday’s case were a group of Catholic high schools in the New York area.
A similar case, led by The Little Sisters of the Poor, has been appealed to the Supreme Court.