Eleventh Circuit Upholds Opt-Out Requirement for Religious Nonprofits

In Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. v. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, et al., 2016 WL 659222 (11th Cir. Feb. 18, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit considered the constitutionality of the opt-out procedure for the contraceptive mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), 42 U.S.C. § 300gg–13(a)(4) (2012).

In an attempt to “reduc[e] unintended pregnancies and giv[e] women more control over birth spacing,” the Women’s Health Amendment to the ACA required that employers provide women with coverage for preventative care and health screenings. Id. The Health Resources and Services Administration created an exception to the mandate that provided that religious employers would not be subject to the regulation and that religious nonprofits were allowed to opt out of the contraceptive mandate. To opt out, a qualifying nonprofit was required to either provide an Employee Benefits Security Administration Form 700 to its plan provider, or to notify directly the Department of Health and Human Services of its intention.

Eternal World Television Network and a group of Catholic organizations each brought suit claiming that the accommodation requirements of opting out of the contraception mandate violated the both the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), as well as the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech Clauses.

Judge Pryor, writing for the court, first held that the accommodation allowing religious organizations to opt out of the contraceptive mandate did not violate the requirements of RFRA. The court recited RFRA’s requirements as: “the federal government ‘shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ unless it demonstrates that the burden ‘is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest’ and ‘is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’” Eternal Word, 2016 WL 659222 at *9 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1(a)–(b) (2012). Plaintiffs argued that having to opt out of the mandate forced them to be complicit in an act, which violates their religious beliefs. The court found that the accommodation did not substantially burden plaintiffs’ religious beliefs under an objective inquiry.

Further, the court concluded that even if the accommodation created a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ religious freedom, the mandate requirement would survive strict scrutiny. Ultimately, the court held that: (1) the governmental interest in reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies is a compelling interest; (2) this interest is furthered by the mandate and accommodation; and (3) the method of requiring organizations to opt out of the mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

Additionally, the court upheld the accommodation over a challenge under the Free Exercise Clause by finding that the mandate was neutrally applied and that plaintiffs failed to show that the mandate was not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. The court also rejected plaintiffs’ contention that the mandate violates the Establishment Clause as the mandate distinguishes between religious organizations that do have to opt out of the plan, and ones that are automatically exempt from coverage as houses of worship. The court found that the cited distinction among the organizations was based on tax-exempt status and using this indicator was a reasonable way to classify the organizations that did not violate the Establishment Clause. Finally, the court rejected plaintiffs’ claims under the Free Speech Clause by finding that the compelling interest of the government in providing contraception allows the government to compel speech in this circumstance.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Tjoflat argued that the analysis of the RFRA claims requires a higher degree of scrutiny and greater deference to protecting religious freedom than the majority opinion purports. In his view, the accommodation option created a substantial burden on religious organizations to choose between either violating commands of their faith or suffering heavy fines from the government. In addition, Judge Tjoflat stated that the government failed to establish that the accommodation was the least restrictive available means to achieve its goal of providing contraceptive care.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email