Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, No. 19-431; Donald Trump v. Pennsylvania, No. 19-454 (July 8, 2020).


Justice Thomas wrote for the Court.  Interim final rules relating to the Affordable Care act of 2010 (“ACA”) require that contraceptives be covered in employer sponsored health care plans notwithstanding that the ACA legislation is silent on this point.   The mandatory preventive care provisions of the ACA do not define what preventive care must be covered, leaving it to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide specifics.

The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury have promulgated exceptions from the contraceptive mandate.   HHS excused itself from the Administrative Procedures Act’s (“APA”) notice and comment provisions, notwithstanding concerns expressed by religious employers.  HHS crafted an exemption for churches and their integrated associates.  

Several years passed in crafting refinements and self-certification for exemptions.  Insurers could provide contraceptive benefits separately to employees of self-certifying exempt entities. Religious entities such as the plaintiffs here objected to this scheme as involving unwanted participation in the contraceptive mandate.  

The Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home (“Little Sisters”) argued — but courts disagreed — that exemption self-certification presented just the kind of undue burden on the free exercise of religion that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) was intended to protect.  Petitions for certiorari from several religious entities were remanded when parties appeared to agree that arrangements for separate provision of contraception could be fashioned so as to not require action by the religious groups, and that this would be a satisfactory result.

At the same time, other challenges to the contraceptive mandate were mounted.  Private employer Hobby Lobby Stores prevailed in an as-applied RFRA challenge, causing HHS to redraft its rules. 

HHS was initially unable to draft measures sufficient to satisfy religious objections while fulfilling the contraceptive mandate’s promise to employees.  After several years, HHS promulgated the rules in issue in this case, which expanded the definition of exempt employers, and which relieved employers from participation in the accommodation process, although that process remained available. 

A federal court issued a national injunction against HHS on the date the rules were to have taken effect.  Subsequent to Third Circuit review, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court, engaging in textual analysis, observed that the ACA conferred unbridled discretion on HHS to regulate required, or excluded, health care for women without defining what that care would include or exclude.  Where Congress could have limited this unfettered discretion but did not do so, the Supreme Court would not supply new additions to the statute.  Where no party raised an overbreadth challenge to the delegation, the Supreme Court would not disturb it.

Because the Court concluded that HHS’ discretion was conferred by Congress, the Court did not address whether RFRA compelled or authorized HHS’ action, but the Court noted that it was not improper for HHS to consider RFRA in fashioning regulations, particularly in light of the proceedings relating to to the contraceptive mandate. 

The Court concluded that HHS met the substance of notice requirements and had accepted comments.  The Court refused to require “open mindedness” of HHS, finding no basis for such a requirement in the APA.

Justice Alito, with Justice Gorsuch, concurred.  Justice Alito would extend the Court’s opinion to find that RFRA requires the exemption, thereby precluding arbitrary and capricious challenges on remand.  Justice Alito urged that the Court find finality in its present decision rather than requiring another round of remand. 

HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) was given responsibility under ACA to determine what preventive services should be made available.  HRSA determined that contraception should be available, at first exempting only churches but later, following objections and litigation before the Supreme Court, expanding that exception and modifying procedures.

Justice Alito opined that RFRA applies to all government activity and as such, HRSA had to administer the contraceptive mandate in accordance with RFRA.  This is particularly so because the Supreme Court held in Hobby Lobby that the contraceptive mandate may substantially burden religion.  

Justice Alito did not think that Congress has fashioned contraceptive coverage in a way that suggests that Congress considered contraception to be a compelling interest, particularly as the question whether it ought to be provided at all was delegated to the administrative agency.  So many people and situations are exempted that it is difficult to perceive that a compelling interest in the provision of contraceptives exists.  The circular administrative exceptions themselves indicate that the mandate did not concern a compelling interest. 

The issue is whether there is a compelling need for coverage, not convenience.  Even if there were a compelling interest, the least restrictive means test must be satisfied.  Congress could create cost-free contraception if it wished without burdening the consciences of religious entities.  

Although the government must legislate using the least restrictive means to advance compelling interests, the government need not adhere to least restrictive means principles in creating accommodations.  The woman who works for an entity that exempts itself from the contraceptive mandate is not burdened by the employer’s exemption: “she is simply not the beneficiary of something that federal law does not provide.”  (Concurrence, Slip Op. at 18.)

Justice Kagan, with Justice Breyer, concurred in the judgment.  Justice Kagan agreed with the idea of authority to create exemptions but questioned whether reasoned decision making is in place, and notes that the lower courts can address this.  The conclusion that authority was present made it unnecessary to address whether any determination was arbitrary and capricious and that needs to be done.  Reasoned decision making is absent where the scope of the exemption does not fit the problem to be addressed.  The revised rule exempts those who might have no objection to the self-certification accommodation, and fails to protect employees’ access to contraception.  The extension of the exemption to publicly traded entities is questionable as it is difficult to locate conscience interests in such companies.  Why more in addition to religious exemptions were included is not clear, and RFRA does not cover “moral” objections. 

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented.  Justice Ginsburg laments what she perceives to be the Court’s abandonment of balancing beliefs so that no interests are overwhelmed, and fears that the Court has demolished the protections that the Women’s Health Amendment to the ACA, leaving “working women to fend for themselves…” (Dissent, Slip Op. at 2.)

Neither the Free Exercise Clause or FRFA required this result.  The Court has abandoned the accommodations intended to ensure that all interests and objections could be addressed.  Unlike the majority, Justice Ginsburg found no authorization for a blanket exemption in the ACA.  Where heretofore it was agreed that any religious exemption to the contraception mandate would preserve access to contraception, the exemption the Court now embraces places an undue burden on women.  Directing women to seek assistance from available government programs will only further cripple already overburdened programs.  

This process would force women to abandon known caregivers and if forced to pay out of pocket would likely cause women to pay for more expensive coverages.

Even if the self-certification process is sincerely believed to be unduly burdensome, that is not true as a matter of fact or law, as the government need not conduct itself in a way that comports with religious views.  Self-certification relieves religious employers of their objections to obligations and transfers the obligation to the insurer:  this both accommodates the religious employer and facilitates the government’s interest in women’s health care.

The obligation to provide contraception arises from the ACA, not from submission of self-certification of exemption based on religious objection.  A blanket exemption is nowhere consistent with any statute or regulation.  

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania No. 19-431 and Trump v. Pennsylvania No. 19-454 July 8, 2020

 

 

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