Texas universities shopping for Hobby Lobby treatment

Two Christian-based universities in Texas are hoping to receive the same exemption from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) contraception mandate as Hobby Lobby did in its famous Supreme Court case. Texas Baptist University and East Texas Baptist University previously obtained a victory in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The district court found that the universities “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” However, HHS appealed and the hearing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Houston took place April 7, 2015.

Religious exemption

In a provision known as the “HHS mandate,” employers are required to provide insurance coverage that includes 20 methods of contraception. However, some believe that certain forms of contraception result in abortion. This view often stems from religious faith. Hobby Lobby objected to this mandate, and the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that if owners of a closely held for-profit corporation oppose the mandate due to religious beliefs, the company is exempt.

The arguments against the mandate stem from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (P.L. 103-141). Under this Act, the government has limitations on creating burdens on the exercise of religion. These burdens must further a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive way possible. The district court originally granted stays preventing the government from subjecting fines upon the universities for failing to provide contraception coverage. The district court felt that a substantial burden would be placed on the universities if they were forced to drop employee health benefits altogether for fear of facing huge fines under the ACA.

Extending the exemption to schools and nonprofits

According to legal counsel for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the universities in the lawsuit, many employers have received exemptions for economic or political reasons. The universities are therefore fighting for this same exemption on the basis of religious liberty. Eric Rassbach, another Beckett Fund attorney, stated that the universities object to the coverage of four out of the 20 methods of contraception. These are pills known as “morning after” and “week after,” as well as two intrauterine devices, known as IUDs. President Robert Sloan of Houston Baptist University professed that the leaders of the universities sincerely believe that life begins when an egg is fertilized in the reproduction process, and that these forms of contraception destroy that life.

HHS previously exempted churches, auxiliaries, religious orders, and companies that employ fewer than 50 people from compliance with the mandate. Nonprofits that are morally opposed to covering certain forms of contraception are able to transfer away administrative obligations either to the insurance company or another administrator. That entity would handle all contraception claims, including processing, payment, and employee advising. The universities object to this process of transferring obligations. Even after self-certifying as morally opposed, the contraception options to which they oppose are still provided, but handled by someone else.

Federal stance

The government’s brief cited other rulings from circuit courts that deemed federal law requires insurance to assume responsibility for the program, not nonprofit action. The government argues that the universities are attempting to block access to contraceptives through a third party after they decide not to provide coverage. According to the brief, this goes beyond preventing the government from forcing an organization to provide contraceptive coverage against its religious beliefs.

Other cases

This case has been combined with cases involving Catholic institutions in the state during court deliberations. In March, the Supreme Court told the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the University of Notre Dame’s objection to the contraception provision. Notre Dame also objects to the compromise of allowing an insurer to take over contraception obligations. After the Seventh Circuit rejected a preliminary injunction request, Notre Dame has been using this alternative system under protest. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes Notre Dame’s objections to the compromise, stating that the objection to contraceptive coverage is discrimination.