February 20, 2015 Practice Points

Affordable Care Act Contraceptive Mandate Accommodation Upheld

By Richard Zielinski

On Thursday, February 12, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed lower court decisions that found the accommodation written into the Affordable Care Act's birth control coverage mandate infringed upon the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights. This ruling is the fifth ruling at the federal appellate level to hold that the accommodation does not violate the Constitution.

The plaintiffs, Geneva College and Pittsburgh and Erie Catholic dioceses, challenged an opt-out clause written in to the Affordable Care Act to allow religious organizations to opt out of providing coverage to employees for reproductive health care. This accommodation was written explicitly for religious organizations who did not want to directly provide contraceptive options to their employees, claiming it violates religious principles. The plaintiffs challenge the accommodation, claiming that simply filling out the one page opt out form creates a record of their refusal and starts the process for their employees to get such coverage elsewhere.

Judge Marjorie O. Rendell and two other judges disagreed entirely with this argument, finding that federal law creates the obligation for contraceptive coverage, not the one page denial form. Whether an entity opts out or not, the coverage is still obligatory. The court found that requiring religious organizations to fill out the accommodation form places "no substantial burden" on the organizations to justify overruling properly enacted Congressional legislation. This is the fourth federal court of appeals to rule the accommodation is not burdensome, and four more are likely to hear the dispute soon. Given the national scope of this argument over the accommodation, the Supreme Court may likely hear the dispute on request by the University of Notre Dame. The University poses an interesting legal question relating to the fact that it is a religiously affiliated non-profit that employs and enrolls people of all faiths. Notre Dame purports that the form violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Keywords: litigation, minority trial, Catholic, contraceptive, birth control, Affordable Care Act

Richard Zielinski is a law student at SUNY Buffalo School of Law in Buffalo, New York.

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