Health Reform WK-EDGE HHS barred from forcing contraception mandate on religious college
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Friday, March 2, 2018

HHS barred from forcing contraception mandate on religious college

By David Yucht, J.D.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempted a Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college, from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) mandate to provide coverage for contraceptive health care based on its sincerely held religious belief. With the government’s consent, the court granted the college’s request for a permanent injunction banning HHS from enforcing the ACA mandate against the school (Wheaton College v. Azar, February 22, 2018, Dow, R.).

Religious college opposed contraception mandate. Wheaton College, which provided health insurance coverage to its students and employees, was eligible for an accommodation under the ACA that would excuse it from complying with the ACA contraceptive coverage mandate. Nevertheless, it alleged that it should be exempted rather than accommodated because complying with the ACA accommodation procedures would "make it morally complicit in the wrongful destruction of human life." Wheaton sued HHS seeking to enjoin enforcement of the ACA’s contraception mandate, asserting the mandate imposed a substantial burden on religious freedom in violation of the RFRA. When the college’s request first came before the court, circuit precedent mandated a decision denying a preliminary injunction. In its opinion denying the requested relief, the Northern District of Illinois invited the filing of a motion for reconsideration if a future decision of the Supreme Court materially changed the law (see Unconvinced court makes Wheaton College wait: Contraceptive coverage requirement stands, June 25, 2014). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial (see Unclear on the concept: no burden, so no injunction for religious college, July 8, 2015).

Zubik. Wheaton’s case was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s consideration of Zubik v. Burwell. The Court remanded Zubik to have the parties agree on an approach accommodating religious exercise while ensuring that plan enrollees receive contraceptive coverage (see Supreme Court kicks contraception challenge back down the road, orders compromise, May 18, 2016).

Executive order. In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order directing agencies to consider amending regulations to address conscience-based objections to the contraception mandate. The agencies promulgated two rules expanding religious exemptions and authorizing employers with religious objections to limit employee access to health insurance coverage for contraception (see Contraception coverage exemptions extended for objecting employers on religious, moral grounds, October 11, 2017).

Contraception mandate enjoined. Based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik and the administration’s regulatory changes, the trial court granted Wheaton College’s motion for a permanent injunction barring HHS from enforcing the contraceptive mandate, and further enjoined the government from penalizing the college for related noncompliance. The court concluded that Wheaton met the standards necessary for injunctive relief. Wheaton demonstrated, and the federal government now conceded, that enforcement of the contraceptive mandate would violate the college’s rights under the RFRA and Wheaton would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction.

The case is No. 1:13-cv-08910.

Attorneys: Adele Auxier Keim (The Becket Fund) and Christian Mark Poland (Bryan Cave LLP) for Wheaton College. Emily Sue Newton, U.S. Department of Justice, for Alex Azar, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Companies: Wheaton College; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Cases: CaseDecisions NewsFeed AccessNews AgencyNews ContraceptionCoverageNews EmployerMandateNews EssentialBenefitNews PenaltyNews IllinoisNews

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