In an unsigned order issued on Thursday, a majority of the US Supreme Court granted a temporary emergency injunction to Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois, ruling that the school does not have to comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA)contraceptive coverage benefit, prompting a severe rebuke from the three women Justices.
The decision comes on the heels of the Court’s 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely-held corporations do not have to provide health insurance coverage of contraception if the owners of the corporation object on religious grounds. In Hobby Lobby, a majority of the Court determined that the ACA violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), noting that the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit was not the “least restrictive means” of obtaining the government’s goal to provide preventive health services to women. In reaching that conclusion, the Court cited the fact that the government had provided an accommodation to religiously affiliated non-profits who opposed birth control.
Now, however, the Court has signaled that the accommodation itself – which requires religiously affiliated non-profits to submit a form declaring that it objects to providing contraceptive coverage – may not survive.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, issued a blistering dissent of the majority’s opinion and of the Court on the whole. “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” she wrote. “Not so today.” Justice Sotomayor continued, “Let me be absolutely clear, I do not doubt that Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one’s religious beliefs are substantially burdened–no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be–does not make it so.”
Justice Sotomayor said the decision to grant Wheaton a temporary injunction “evinces disregard for even the newest of this court’s precedents and undermines confidence in this institution.”
The ACA requires health insurance providers to cover preventive health services – including all FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the pill, emergency contraceptives, and IUDs – without charging co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance. Religious employers, such as churches, are exempted entirely from the requirement. Certain non-profits, who object to contraception on religious grounds, can obtain an accommodation that would allow these groups not to provide contraceptives to their employees. If the non-profit has an employer-provided group health insurance plan, then the employer would submit a certification to the insurance issuer. The issuer would then have to provide contraceptive coverage. If the non-profit employer has a self-insured plan, one that relies on employer-contributions without outside insurance contributions, then the employer would contract with a third-party administrator who would pay for and process claims for contraceptive services.
122 non-profits have sued the Obama Administration, claiming that the self-certification form itself is a violation of their constitutional right to religious freedom.