..NEW YORK (AP) — The legal challenges over religious freedom and the birth control coverage requirement in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul appear to be moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
Faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities have filed dozens of lawsuits against the mandate, which requires employers to provide insurance that covers contraception for free. However, many for-profit business owners are also suing, claiming a violation of their religious beliefs.
The religious lawsuits have largely stalled, as the Department of Health and Human Services tries to develop an accommodation for faith groups. However, no such offer will be made to individual business owners. And their lawsuits are yielding conflicting rulings in appeals courts around the country.
"The circuits have split. You're getting different, conflicting interpretations of law, so the line of cases will have to go to the Supreme Court, " said Carl Esbeck, a professor at the University of Missouri Law School who specializes in religious liberty issues.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Obama's fiercely contested health care overhaul, known as the Affordable Care Act, was constitutional. But differences over the birth control provision in the law have yet to be resolved.
Under the requirement, most employers, including faith-affiliated hospitals and nonprofits, have to provide health insurance that includes artificial contraception, including sterilization, as a free preventive service. The goal, in part, is to help women space pregnancies as a way to promote health.
Religious groups who employ and serve people of their own faith — such as churches — are exempt. But other religiously affiliated groups, such as Catholic Charities, must comply.
Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals and some religious leaders who have generally been supportive of Obama's policies have lobbied fiercely for a broader exemption. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of artificial contraception. Evangelicals generally permit the use of birth control, but they object to specific methods such as the morning-after contraceptive pill, which they argue is tantamount to abortion.
Obama promised to change the birth control requirement so insurance companies and not faith-affiliated employers would pay for the coverage, but religious leaders said more changes were needed to make the plan work.
The Health and Human Services Department said it could not comment on litigation. A spokeswoman also did not respond to a question about when the latest revisions in the birth control rule would be made public.
However, government attorneys responding to a lawsuit said an announcement was expected by the end of March. In the suit filed by the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois and Catholic Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, the court ordered government attorneys to provide a progress report on the new rule every 60 days. Whatever its final form, the mandate will take effect for religious groups in August.
At the center of the cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law that bars the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion for anything other than a compelling government interest pursued in the least restrictive way. The question of how or whether these criteria apply when owners of for-profit businesses have a religious objection to a government policy hasn't been fully tested.
"It's more natural for people to say Notre Dame exercises religion, but when you say this power tool company exercises religion, you have to explain it little more, I think the claims are really the same," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents many of the plaintiffs.
Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, argued the business owners are trying to use a religious liberty claim to deny benefits to someone else.
"We don't think that religious liberty claims can be used as a way to discriminate against women employees — using those claims to take away someone else's benefits and services," Amiri said.
In the lawsuits from faith-affiliated groups, such as the University of Notre Dame, judges around the country have generally said it would be premature to decide the legal issues until the federal rule for religiously affiliated organizations is finalized.
In the cases involving business owners, judges have granted temporary injunctions to businesses in nine of 14 cases they've heard, while questions about for-profit employers and religious rights are decided, according to a tally by the Becket Fund.
In a case brought by Cyril and Jane Korte, Catholic owners of Korte & Luitjohan Contractors in Illinois, a three-judge panel granted a temporary injunction, ruling 2-1 that providing employees insurance coverage that includes birth control would violate the Kortes' faith.
"It is a family-run business, and they manage the company in accordance with their religious beliefs," the judges wrote.
The dissenting judge argued that the company will not be paying directly for contraception but instead will purchase insurance that covers a wide range of health care that could include birth control, if the woman decides with her physician that she needs it.
"What the Kortes wish to do is to preemptively declare that their company need not pay for insurance which covers particular types of medical care to which they object," the dissenting judge wrote.
Similar reasoning was used by courts denying an injunction requested by the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby and religious book-seller Mardel Inc., which are owned by the same evangelical family. Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby calls itself a "biblically founded business" and is closed on Sundays.
The U.S. district judge who first considered the request said, "Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations."
"Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion," the ruling said.
This is going to be a tough one to iron out. I understand the importance of preventative care and birth control...but moving into a gov't run healthcare program creates some big issues. The one thing I can never wrap my head around is the argument from the left that the gov't should not be involved in any woman's personal decisions about BC, abortion, etc (which I don't disagree with necessarily)...so then, by the same token, the gov't shouldn't be paying for those things, right? I mean, that's a bit hypocritical to tell the gov't to butt out, yet expect them to pay, isn't it?
I'll be watching this closely. There are going to be many bumps in the road with the ACA...I think this is going to be a big one.
I'll be honest. To me, it seems like this is a whole lot of business' that just want to get out of the cost of assisting with health care insurance for their employees'. I can understand the churches - sort of, but if everyone becomes exempt, your right back where you started.
The thing to keep in mind is that in most countries with a Nationalized Health Care Plan, the gov't is simply the administrator of funds. They aren't really the ones that make the decisions. It's kept fairly seperate for a good reason. They collect the money from taxes, and administer it to the seperate governing body. I know the whole concept sounds scary, but if you view access to medical care as a right (as I do), it's a system that can work very well. The US is currently the only country left in the Industrialized world without a National Health Care Plan - surely the rest of us might be doing something right?
I hate religious arguments when they pertain to government. I should not be expected to operate under anyone elses religion, nor should anyone be expected to operate under my religious beliefs.... separation of church and state.
Holy canoli...I read my last sentence and did it ever come across snooty sounding. I so did not mean it the way it sounds....more meant that I think all the horrible things you all hear about a system like this isn't necessarily the truth....sorry my friend. Came out all wrong.
Good points, Amanda...I get what you're saying, but it's our very constitution and the issue of religion as a right that's being called into question. I DO get where they're coming from in a sense. Under the constitution, those organizations DO have the right to be able to honor their religious beliefs...and this is one area where a lot of people have a problem.
It's definitely a messy situation with a lot of gray areas. I guess that's why they want the courts to decide. Now, if I had a little more faith in our legal system (lol)..I would say that they will sort it out. Not sure about that though.
Brice..I agree with you, but the problem is, they ARE intertwined, so then issues come up. It would be better if they were independent of each other completely, I agree.
And, Amanda..I'm SURE that some of the people fighting ARE just trying to skirt their financial obligation, no doubt. You will always have people like that who will try to find a loophole to take advantage of an argument. But, I DO believe that a good bit of these organizations really do see this as a conflict. Especially Hobby Lobby, which we've discussed before. People have the right to run their businesses as they see fit...with religion being an important building block for them. I believe that there are people like that that really just do have a moral issue with being mandated to pay for something they are fundamentally objected to in a big way.
It's a very difficult situation without a doubt. I want to see people getting the coverage they need (at least a portion of it)....but at the same time, I respect the concerns of those business owners.
I think there is a giant reluctance to allow our government to be doling out any more money than they do. Almost everything they are involved with financially is either completely broke.... SS, Medicare/Medicaid, Taxation, welfare.....Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae.... They've ruined all of those systems and I think its a matter of time before they blow this fish out of the water too.
I have very little faith in our government being able to effectively run any program. Look at the track records.....
I think the issue I have with companies like Hobby Lobby's stance is that although they have deep religious convictions, companies are obligated to support the needs of a wide variety of employees. If they feel this strongly about birth control, perhaps they should only hire those that support their stance? I don't know, I struggle with this, I really do. I can understand not supporting things like abortion if they feel that way, but birth control? I just can't help but feel that insurance should cover as wide a variety of needs as possible.
Brice, I hear you. It's just that it really doesn't work that way. At least it doesn't here. Here, the funds are handled provincially, although some funding comes federally. Taxes are collected, and appropriate amounts of money are administered. The only difference is that no one who was born in Canada can be denied any medical treatment required, and that 100% of the decision making process is between patient and Dr. And it's run as a non profit, so more of the funds go into actual medical care as opposed to administration, lobby groups, etc. etc. As I've always said, there are negatives, but honestly, a for profit system like the US where the profits are the bottom line are absolutely terrifying to me.
I don't believe it is inconsistent to want the government to stay out of our business when we are making personal family planning choices, and still expect our health insurance to cover our entire bodies, reproductive system included.
Since the circuits are split on this, I guess the Supremes will get to decide this sooner rather than later.
“If they feel this strongly about birth control, perhaps they should only hire those that support their stance?”
Legally, you can’t do that but, if they don’t like the company policies, they can find a job somewhere else. Regardless of what our personal beliefs are, I think the Government is stepping over the line.
I feel bad that Hobby Lobby lost their case. They've inserted Christianity and their religion into their business from the start. If I had a big problem with that, I'd not work there. Same with someplace like Mercy Hospitals. They are Catholic based. If you have a problem with someplace having their religious values inserted into their envirornment in subtle or nonsubtle ways, then you should seek employment elsewhere. Hobby Lobby has had its policies from the begining. Yes, they have to follow the same rules that other companies do and that is what it is. still makes me feel bad for them.
Why not simply let companys or organizations that choose to do so, opt out of the birth control mandate and let them provide a higher level of coverage on something else? Perhaps assistance on their employee's copay or something else everyone uses. Don't try to tell me this hasn't been number crunched down to the penny. It shouldn't be that hard to respect everyone's faith and still provide all workers comparable benefits.
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