Demanding a better answer, Catholics ask SCOTUS for review

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, District of Columbia, filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, asking whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) “allows the Government to force objecting religious nonprofit organizations to violate their beliefs by offering health plans with ‘seamless’ access to coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization.” The Archdiocese and affiliated organizations object to the contraception mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148).


The ACA requires health insurance coverage to include preventive care without cost-sharing; preventive care for women is defined to include all FDA-approved contraceptives, which the Catholic Church views as immoral. The regulations implementing the ACA allow religious employers to self-certify their objection to providing some or all contraceptive coverage. Once an employer has completed the self-certification, a third party—the employer’s group insurance provider or self-insurance administrator—provides that coverage to members of the health plan.

The Archdiocese filed suit against HHS, claiming that the act of self-certifying, in and of itself, is a substantial burden on the exercise of its religion. The trial court determined that elements of the contraceptive mandate violated a Thomas Aquinas College’s religious rights under RFRA, because the private Catholic college is self-insured, but that the rights of the Archdiocese and its related organizations were adequately protected by the act of self-certification (see Religious freedom rights of catholic college violated by contraceptive mandate, Health Reform WK-EDGE, December 31, 2013).

The Archdiocese appealed the District Court’s decision, and the D.C. Circuit consolidated its claims with those of Priests for Life. The appeals court was not convinced that self-certification truly imposed a significant burden on the religious organizations, saying, “That bit of paperwork is more straightforward and minimal than many that are staples of nonprofit organizations’ compliance with law in the modern administrative state. Religious nonprofits that opt out are excused from playing any role in the provision of contraception services, and they remain free to condemn contraception in the clearest terms” (see ‘Minimal paperwork’ fails to meet substantial burden test for contraceptive coverage, Health Reform WK-EDGE, November 19, 2014). Unsatisfied, the religious groups requested a rehearing en banc, which the court denied, saying that the Catholics’ claims are “based on sincere but erroneous assertions about how federal law works” (see We’ve heard enough: court draws the line at accommodation, denies rehearing, Health Reform WK-EDGE, May 27, 2015).


According to their petition, the ACA compels the Archdiocese to “contract with third parties that will provide or procure the objectionable coverage” and to submit documentation that makes the Archdiocese “complicit in the delivery of such coverage.” Therefore, the petition says that the only issue in the case is “whether the Government can commandeer Petitioners and their health plans as vehicles for delivering abortifacient and contraceptive coverage in violation of their religion.” The petitioners note that their belief that some contraceptive methods can induce an abortion, specifically mentioning Plan B® and ella®—two emergency contraception, or “morning after,” pills that prevent ovulation, fertilization, and implantation of a fertilized egg. The manufacturers explicitly deny that emergency contraception is an abortifacient, and state that neither Plan B nor ella will interfere with an existing pregnancy. The Archdiocese is requesting a full exemption from the contraception mandate.

The petition has been assigned docket No. 14-1505.