Religious Employers to Go Ahead With Contraception Lawsuits

A batch of nonprofit religious employers signaled they would continue with lawsuits against the Obama administration's contraception-coverage requirement, the first clear sign the administration's latest compromise won't end the legal battle over the issue.

Three nonprofit organizations asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit late Monday to block the administration's efforts to require their insurance plans to cover prescription forms of contraception under a new arrangement designed to shield employers from directly funding or providing methods they believe to be immoral. The requirement is part of the Affordable Care Act.

The government says its revised system accommodates religious employers' beliefs while ensuring their employees have access to the same range of contraception methods through their insurance as other workers. It plans to offer the new arrangement to nonprofit employers and some for-profit companies with religious objections to contraception.

Religious groups say the compromise remains inadequate, and the administration should allow affiliated employers to omit contraception coverage entirely from health plans, as houses of worship are allowed to do.

The action comes in the wake of a June Supreme Court decision involving arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby that found the government had gone too far in requiring religious owners of for-profit companies to cover forms of contraception they consider immoral. The court didn't directly say what steps federal officials could take instead.

Days later, a majority of the justices granted an injunction to a religious college that created uncertainty over whether a previous compromise arrangement offered by the administration specifically for religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations would withstand legal challenges.

In briefs filed Monday to the appeals court in Denver, several groups that had already begun cases against the administration said the fresh arrangement announced last month still doesn't resolve their concerns.

In the compromise outlined Aug. 22, employers with religious objections to some or all forms of birth control can opt out of providing coverage themselves by writing a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services. Federal officials would then contact the employers' insurance-plan administrators and ask them to make separate arrangements for employees who want to access contraception through their health plans, with the federal government reimbursing the insurers later.

Lawyers for the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic nuns who run a chain of nonprofit nursing homes, said in a brief filed Monday, "The Little Sisters have stated a clear religious objection to facilitating the distribution of contraceptives in connection with their plan in any way." The fresh proposals "therefore merely offer the Little Sisters another way to violate their religion and comply with the mandate."

The other challengers are Southern Nazarene University, a Christian college in Oklahoma affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene, and Reaching Souls International, an evangelical Christian mission based in Oklahoma City. They also signaled in court filings the compromise doesn't satisfy them and they want the court to consider their suits challenging the requirement.

Government lawyers told the court that the fresh system will "provide an alternative opt-out mechanism that respects religious liberty while allowing the government to achieve its 'compelling interest in providing insurance coverage that is necessary to protect the health of female employees.' "

Some Catholic-affiliated employers have religious objections to most forms of contraception. Some other opponents of the contraception coverage requirement object specifically to methods such as the so-called morning-after pill, which they consider tantamount to abortion.

Dozens of nonprofit employers had already been fighting previous versions of the administration's proposals in federal courts in other parts of the country, and for-profit employers who had been pursuing cases similar to Hobby Lobby's could also quickly move ahead with their suits if they agree the system doesn't satisfy them.

If circuit courts split on the validity of the new system, the Supreme Court could have to take up the issue again.