Latest contraceptive coverage mandate decision includes several new twists

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

A Pennsylvania federal district court on Wednesday handed down a decision in a case challenging the contraceptive coverage mandate promulgated under the Affordable Care Act.  Unlike other cases decided so far, this one combined a challenge by a non-profit college and two for-profit businesses that do not appear to have any relation to the college.  The 69-page opinion reached different results as to the different challengers.  In Geneva College v. Sebelius, (WD PA, March 6, 2013), the court held that while the non-profit, Reformed Presbyterian Church-sponsored Geneva college had standing to challenge the mandate, its lawsuit should be dismissed for lack of ripeness. Under Feb. 13 proposed rules, Geneva may be exempted from compliance. 

The court, however, handed down a more complex ruling as to the challenges by the for-profit businesses, refusing to dismiss their RFRA, free exercise and Administrative Procedure Act claims. It held that one of the companies, a closely-held corporation in the lumber business, has standing to assert its Catholic owners’ free exercise rights under the 1st Amendment and RFRA. However the court held that the other business, a sole proprietorship, cannot assert a claim since it is not a separate entity. Instead its owner, who is also a plaintiff in the case, may assert the business’ rights in his own name. 

The court went on to apply the strict scrutiny standard, both under RFRA, and under the 1st Amendment as well finding that extensive exemptions prevent the mandate from being a “generally applicable” law. The court concluded that the owners had put forward a plausible claim that the mandate will impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs, and that the government has failed to show a compelling interest in enforcing the mandate against these defendants. The court dismissed Establishment Clause, free speech and due process challenges. 

Finally, in what may be a first in the many decisions handed down so far in challenges to the mandate, the court held that “plaintiffs set forth sufficient factual allegations to support a plausible claim that the notice and comment requirements of the APA were violated.” ADF issued a press release on the decision.