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SCOTUS Remands Notre Dame's ACA Contraception Objections Case

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 13, 2015 4:49 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it is sending the University of Notre Dame's lawsuit over contraception coverage back to the Seventh Circuit for reconsideration. The Catholic university had objected to the Affordable Care Act's "compromise" provisions for religious institutions, which allowed them to opt out of covering their employees' contraception directly.

According to Notre Dame, even the act of opting out was too much and substantially burdened their religious freedom. The Seventh Circuit, which had rejected the argument, must now reconsider it in light of the High Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which found that tightly held corporations could be exempt from laws based on the religious objections of their owners.

Notre Dame's 'Trigger' Argument

The ACA requires employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover contraception, but exempts religious non-profits, such as Notre Dame, who object. Objectors must complete a form and provide it to their insurer and their plan's third-party administrator, who then cover contraception costs.

The Fighting Irish had argued that even opting out "triggered" their participation in birth control provision against their religious objections, placing a substantial burden on their free practice of religion.

The Seventh Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Richard Posner, rejected the trigger argument, finding the ACA's religious exemption procedures to be a completely reasonable mean of advancing a compelling government interest. The court was unconvinced that by filling out a short, simple form and sending out two copies, the university's religious freedom had been substantially burdened.

Re-Examining ACA Objections in Light of Hobby Lobby

The Seventh Circuit's decision was made before the Supreme Court decided Hobby Lobby. That decision emphasized that courts should defer to the reasonableness of individual's religious beliefs. The question that now looms: how much must a court defer to an objector's belief that their religious exercise is being burdened?

Not much, according to the Third Circuit. In a recent decision rejecting a similar ACA trigger objection, that Circuit reaffirmed that it is the court's job to objectively evaluate the claimed burden. The Supreme Court's summary vacation of the Seventh Circuit's decision could put that kind of logic in jeopardy.

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