June 24, 2015 — A panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday overturned a lower court decision that granted several schools in Texas an injunction against the federal contraceptive coverage rules, the Houston Chronicle reports.
The case involved three Texas-based schools: East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and Westminster Theological Seminary. An attorney for the universities, Eric Rassbach, said the plaintiffs might appeal the ruling to the full 5th Circuit or to the Supreme Court (Turner, Houston Chronicle, 6/23).
The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most employers to offer coverage to their workers. The rules include an exemption for houses of worship and an accommodation for not-for-profits that hold themselves out as religious and oppose contraception.
The accommodation enables such not-for-profits to notify their insurers or third-party administrators of their objection so the insurers or third-party administrators can facilitate contraceptive coverage for members of their health plans. To claim the accommodation, the not-for-profits may either complete a form to send to the insurers or third-party administrators or send a letter to HHS stating that they object to offering contraceptive coverage in their health plans.
In December 2013, a federal judge granted East Texas Baptist and Houston Baptist a preliminary injunction against the mandate. The two universities had argued that the rules violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141).
In April, the federal government appealed the lower court ruling to a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/10).
In the ruling, the three-judge panel agreed with the federal government and held that the contraceptive coverage rules do not place a "substantial burden" on the organizations' exercise of religion because a third-party is providing the contraceptives.
The judges wrote, "The acts the plaintiffs are required to perform do not involve providing or facilitating access to contraceptives ... and the plaintiffs have no right under [RFRA] to challenge the independent conduct of third parties."
According to the Chronicle, the 5th Circuit in its ruling joins appeals courts in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which have all issued similar decisions to uphold the rules (Houston Chronicle, 6/23).