E.D. MO.: Politician’s contraception mandate challenge survives, thanks to Eighth Circuit remand

Missouri State Senator and former State Representative Paul Wieland’s (R) Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.) challenge of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) contraception mandate will continue, a U.S. district court in Missouri ruled. Wieland and his wife claimed that the mandate forced them to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs by either enrolling in a health plan that would have covered contraceptive services for their daughters or foregoing health insurance altogether. The district court formerly dismissed Wieland’s case but issued the new ruling upon remand from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Wieland v. HHS, January 8, 2016, Hamilton, J.).

Case history

Wieland and his family are lifelong Catholics who oppose the use of contraception. As a member of the Missouri General Assembly, Wieland received health insurance coverage through the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan (MCHCP). He and his wife objected to enrolling in a plan that provided contraceptive coverage and claimed that their only other option was to forego health insurance altogether, since they didn’t believe a plan that did not provide for contraceptive coverage existed and that, if it did, it would be significantly more expensive. The Wielands sued HHS and the Departments of the Treasury and Labor, alleging that the contraception mandate violated their rights under the RFRA, the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) (5 U.S.C. § 706).

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri (Eastern District) initially dismissed the case for lack of standing (see Court rejects parent’s challenge to individual mandate for birth control coverage, October 17, 2013). On appeal, the Eight Circuit determined that the Wielands suffered an injury, in that they would have been able to have a contraceptive-free plan but for the mandate, and that the situation resulted from HHS’ actions and not discretionary actions on the part of the state. It remanded the case back to the Eastern District for further action (see Parents have standing in contraceptive mandate lawsuit, July 22, 2015).

Sincerely-held beliefs

The Eastern District took note of the Eighth Circuit’s decision in Sharpe Holdings, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (October 9, 2015, Noce, D.), in which the Eighth Circuit determined that subjecting a party to significant monetary penalties based on its sincerely-held religious beliefs was a substantial burden (see Contraceptive accommodation judgment final for for-profit employers, non-profits are still looking up, October 14, 2015). It also found persuasive the logic of a district court’s in March for Life v. Burwell (August 31, 2015, Leon, R.), in which the court determined that, while “plaintiffs are not the direct objects of the Mandate, they are very much burdened by it,” (see Nonprofit employer, religious employees not bound by contraceptive coverage requirement, September 2, 2015). The Eastern District ultimately allowed the Wielands’ RFRA claim to continue, noting that it could reasonably infer that the mandate caused them to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs, while noting that the government could still eventually prove that it was furthering a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means necessary. The Eastern District dismissed the Wielands’ remaining claims, noting, in particular, that the mandate was neutral and generally applicable, failed to affect the manner in which the Wielands raise their children, and regulated conduct rather than speech. Furthermore, the Wielands lacked prudential standing under the APA, as they were not qualified health plans.

The case is No. 4:13-cv-01577-JCH.