July 18, 2012 — A federal judge in Nebraska on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by seven states and three Catholic groups challenging the federal contraceptive coverage rules, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 7/17).
U.S. District Court Judge Warren Urbom ruled that the lawsuit was premature because the plaintiffs do not face an immediate threat of having to offer coverage, given that the Obama administration agreed to work with religiously affiliated entities and has delayed enforcement of the rules until August 2013 (Schulte, AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/17).
The ruling marks the first time a federal judge has dismissed one of the lawsuits challenging the rules, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights (Baynes, Reuters, 7/17).
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys general from Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Pius X Catholic High School, Catholic Social Services and Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America are also plaintiffs in the case (National Journal, 7/17).
The suit alleged that religious employers that oppose contraception would be effectively forced to stop offering health coverage because of the new rules, which the suit contends would lead to higher enrollment in state Medicaid programs and increase patient volume at state-subsidized hospitals and medical centers.
The rules implement a provision in the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. In February, the Obama administration announced that it would alter the rules so that 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.
The Department of Justice had requested that the case be dismissed, arguing that the plaintiffs do not face an immediate threat of having to offer the coverage (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/13).
Urbom said that in addition to failing to prove that they faced an immediate threat, the Catholic groups that joined the suit did not show that they would not qualify for the religious exemption. He also noted that the administration has said it will continue to work with religiously affiliated groups (AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/17).
The judge rejected the states' argument that the rules would increase demand for state resources, saying it was "based on conjecture about the reactions of third parties" and that "one can only speculate whether the plaintiffs will ever feel any effects from the rule when the temporary enforcement safe harbor terminates" (O'Hanlon, Lincoln Journal Star, 7/17).
Reaction From States
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), who was leading the case, said in a statement, "Today's decision completely disregards the federal government's continued shell game when it comes to this rule," adding that the ruling "asks millions of Americans to watch and wait for their religious liberties to be violated."
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) said he would talk to officials from other states about appealing the ruling. "This was not a ruling on whether the religious mandate is a violation of the First Amendment, but merely a decision on whether the plaintiffs can file a lawsuit at this time," he said in a statement, adding, "The violations need to be heard and the federal government held accountable" (AP/Sacramento Bee, 7/17).