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Friday, November 08, 2013

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides one Indiana case today, and it is big

Today the 7th Circuit issued a consolidated opinion in the Grote (SD Ind, Barker) and the Korte (SD Ill.) challenges to the affordable health care act "contraception mandate". In a 154-page opinion, including a 90-page dissent by Judge Rovner, in Cyril Korte v. HHS and William Grote, III v. Kathleen Sebelius, Judge Sykes [joined by J. Flaum] writes:

These consolidated appeals challenge the federal government’s “contraception mandate,” a regulatory requirement imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to implement the terms of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The mandate requires employers to provide coverage for contraception and sterilization procedures in their employee health-care plans on a no-cost-sharing basis. Noncompliance carries heavy financial penalties and the risk of enforcement actions.

The plaintiffs are two Catholic families and their closely held corporations—one a construction company in Illinois and the other a manufacturing firm in Indiana. The businesses are secular and for profit, but they operate in conformity with the faith commitments of the families that own and manage them. The plaintiffs object for religious reasons to providing the mandated coverage. They sued for an exemption on constitutional and statutory grounds.

Center stage at this juncture is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which prohibits the federal government from placing substantial burdens on “a person’s exercise of religion,” id. § 2000bb-1(a), unless it can demonstrate that applying the burden is the “least restrictive means of furthering … [a] compelling governmental interest,” id. § 2000bb-1(b). Focusing primarily on their RFRA claims, the plaintiffs in each case moved for a preliminary injunction. The district judges denied relief, holding that the claims were not likely to succeed. We provisionally disagreed and enjoined enforcement of the mandate pending appeal.

The appeals have now been briefed and argued and are ready for decision. Plenary review has confirmed our earlier judgment. These cases—two among many currently pending in courts around the country—raise important questions about whether business owners and their closely held corporations may assert a religious objection to the contraception mandate and whether forcing them to provide this coverage substantially burdens their religious-exercise rights. We hold that the plaintiffs—the business owners and their companies—may challenge the mandate. We further hold that compelling them to cover these services substantially burdens their religiousexercise rights. Under RFRA the government must justify the burden under the standard of strict scrutiny. So far it has not done so, and we doubt that it can. Because the RFRA claims are very likely to succeed and the balance of harms favors protecting the religious-liberty rights of the plaintiffs, we reverse and remand with instructions to enter preliminary injunctions barring enforcement of the mandate against them. * * *

[Judge Rovner's opinion, beginning on p. 65] The court’s holding in these cases is as remarkable for its reasoning as for its result. The Kortes and the Grotes are business owners: Korte & Luitjohan Contractors is a construction firm, and Grote Industries manufactures motor vehicle turn signals, reflectors, emergency lighting, and other safety systems. Neither company has a declared religious purpose or mission. Both are subject to the full range of regulatory demands and constraints that government imposes on all such businesses. These include the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) requirement that employers provide comprehensive health insurance to their employees that includes fully subsidized access to contraceptive care for women who choose to use it. The Kortes and the Grotes are Catholic and, consistent with the teachings of their religion, view the use of contraceptives as immoral. Invoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb- 1 (“RFRA”), they object to the contraception mandate of the ACA as a substantial burden on their right to the free exercise of religion.

In exempting (preliminarily) the two corporations from the contraception mandate, the court equates the business activities of these secular, for-profit firms with the religious exercise of its owners. Because the Kortes and the Grotes declare that they run the corporations in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, the court views the burdens that government imposes on the corporations and the company health plans as burdens on the religious consciences and exercise of the individual owners. Not only that: the court attributes to the corporations religious exercise rights of their own, rights that the companies themselves can assert, as informed by the religious beliefs of their owners. Because the Kortes and the Grotes oppose the use of contraception, the companies’ obligation to include contraceptive coverage in their workplace health insurance plans is understood as a burden on the owners’ free exercise rights and in turn on the companies’ free exercise rights. The court declares off-limits any inquiry into the nature and degree of the burden imposed on these rights; instead, rewriting both the terms of RFRA and free exercise clause jurisprudence, the court declares it sufficient that the ACA compels the two corporations to comply with a requirement to which its owners object on religious grounds. Thus reasoning that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the free exercise rights of the individuals and their companies, the court then subjects the mandate to strict scrutiny and concludes that it fails that demanding standard.

So it is that, in the name of free exercise of religion, the court has relieved two secular corporations from a statutory obligation to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of contraceptive care for the companies’ female employees. Realistically, the only religious interests at stake are those of the corporations’ owners—their faith is the source of the objection to contraception. * * *

ILB: The ILB has a very long list of entries on this issue - here are some of them.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 8, 2013 06:26 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions