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Opponents of the Affordable Care Act's religious exemption to contraceptive coverage suffered a setback today, as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court's determination that even the religious exemption runs afoul of the First Amendment.
The Third Circuit's opinion falls in line with opinions from other circuits last year, holding that the religious exemption to contraceptive coverage doesn't allow an employer to prevent an employee from ever obtaining contraceptives.
The religious organizations in this case covered all the bases, in the event this case were to go to the Supreme Court: a Christian liberal arts college, a lumber mill, a sole proprietorship, and an individual who co-owns the lumber mill. Got all your corporate forms covered?
The argument here was the same one we've heard before: The mere act of signing a form saying that a religious employer won't provide contraception "triggers" or "facilitates" the employee's getting contraception coverage somewhere else. That act makes them complicit in something that's against their religious beliefs: The horror that, somewhere, somehow, someone is getting a birth control pill. Basically, the employers insist that any action they take puts them in the positively untenable position of allowing a woman to get access to contraception.
It just gives them a case of the vapors!
Even though the organizations sincerely believed that their act of signing the form enabled the provision of alternative contraception, the court has to defer to their religious beliefs, not their interpretation of the law. As the Sixth Circuit skeptically wrote in a similar challenge last year, "the appellants appear to ask the court to defer not only to their belief that requesting the exemption or the accommodation makes them complicit in sin, but also to defer to their understanding of how the regulatory measure actually works."
Sorry, guys: Your religious beliefs can be mistaken (as in Hobby Lobby's factual mischaracterization of IUDs and the morning-after pill as "abortifacients," which, as a matter of science, they aren't), but only the court gets to interpret the law. The Third Circuit, like the Sixth and Seventh Circuits before it, concluded that federal law, not the employer's act of signing the exemption form, enables the alternative coverage. The employer isn't involved in the process of obtaining contraceptive coverage, doesn't pay for anything, and doesn't even provide the notice to the employee about alternative contraceptive coverage.
What about the burden on the religious employer? The Third Circuit wasn't as ready as the district court to accept the religious organizations' claims that it was burdened by filling out a form. Because the Third Circuit concluded that the act of filling out the form had no causal relationship to an employee's obtaining alternative contraceptive coverage, there could be no burden.
Really, the religious employers in these cases want to prevent their employees from obtaining any contraception from anyone, anywhere. That's why this is my favorite sentence in the whole Third Circuit opinion: "RFRA does not entitle [the appellees] to control their employees' relationships with other entities willing to provide health insurance coverage to which the employees are legally entitled." Sure, you have rights, but so do your employees.
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