May 22, 2012 — In 12 lawsuits filed in federal courts, 43 organizations -- including Roman Catholic dioceses, schools and other institutions -- on Monday challenged the federal contraceptive coverage rules that have been proposed as part of the health reform law (PL 111-148), the Washington Post reports (Boorstein, Washington Post, 5/20).
The lawsuits represent the largest coordinated test of the rules since President Obama announced the policy in January, according to the AP/U-T San Diego (Zoll, AP/U-T San Diego, 5/21). Some of the plaintiffs in the suits include the University of Notre Dame; the Catholic University of America; and the archdioceses of Dallas, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.
Background on Opposition to Rules
The religious institutions join several other smaller entities that already have sued over the rules, which implement a provision in the health reform law that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles (Rovner, "Shots," NPR, 5/21). Originally, the Obama administration exempted certain religious employers -- such as houses of worship -- from covering contraceptive services for their employees, but it did not exempt religious organizations with more general missions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities.
After many religious leaders said the definition was too narrow, the administration said religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide no-cost coverage directly to women (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/2).
Religiously affiliated employers have until August 2013 to comply. In the meantime, the Obama administration continues to take comments on the accommodation.
The suits filed on Monday argue that the rules violate federal law and the First Amendment rights of religiously affiliated employers that oppose contraception. The rules force such employers to "sacrifice their beliefs in order to be able to continue their mission of serving all people in need," according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Washington Post, 5/20).
The White House declined to comment on Monday, instead referring to Obama's statement from February that "employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to [no copay] contraceptive services, just like other women" (Goodstein, New York Times, 5/21).
Some legal experts said the suits might be premature, given that the rules have not taken effect. Ira Lupu, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, also noted that the Supreme Court could strike down the law in the meantime, or the rules could be overturned if Mitt Romney becomes president. However, despite the timing issues, "[b]oth sides have very respectable sets of arguments," Lupu said (Washington Post, 5/20).
Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said, "It is unbelievable that in the year 2012 we have to fight for access to birth control. Yet this lawsuit would make it harder for millions of women to get birth control." She added that contraception is not "a religious of political issue -- it's a medical issue, and that's where we should keep it" (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 5/21).