A Republican-appointed federal judge in Missouri has rejected one of the many legal challenges to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, ruling that the mandate is not a significant burden on the religious freedom of the plaintiffs. You can read the full ruling here.
The case was brought by a Catholic business owner under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which allows individuals to ask a court to grant them an exemption from any federal law that poses a “substantial burden” to their exercise of religious freedom unless the government can show a “compelling state interest” in applying the law to them, and under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The court rejected both claims.
Plaintiffs allege that the preventive services coverage regulations impose a similar ultimatum, and therefore substantially burden their free exercise of religion “by coercing Plaintiffs to choose between conducting their business in accordance with their religious beliefs or paying substantial penalties to the government.” However, the challenged regulations do not demand that plaintiffs alter their behavior in a manner that will directly and inevitably prevent plaintiffs from acting in accordance with their religious beliefs. Frank O’Brien is not prevented from keeping the Sabbath, from providing a religious upbringing for his children, or from participating in a religious ritual such as communion. Instead, plaintiffs remain free to exercise their religion, by not using contraceptives and by discouraging employees from using contraceptives. The burden of which plaintiffs complain is that funds, which plaintiffs will contribute to a group health plan, might, after a series of independent decisions by health care providers and patients covered by OIH’s plan, subsidize someone else’s participation in an activity that is condemned by plaintiffs’ religion. This Court rejects the proposition that requiring indirect financial support of a practice, from which plaintiff himself abstains according to his religious principles, constitutes a substantial burden on plaintiff’s religious exercise.
RFRA is a shield, not a sword. It protects individuals from substantial burdens on religious exercise that occur when the government coerces action one’s religion forbids, or forbids action one’s religion requires; it is not a means to force one’s religious practices upon others. RFRA does not protect against the slight burden on religious exercise that arises when one’s money circuitously flows to support the conduct of other free-exercise-wielding individuals who hold religious beliefs that differ from one’s own…
Just as in Mead, plaintiffs must contribute to a health care plan which does not align with their religious beliefs. In this case, however, the burden on plaintiffs is even more remote; the health care plan will offend plaintiffs’ religious beliefs only if an OIH employee (or covered family member) makes an independent decision to use the plan
to cover counseling related to or the purchase of contraceptives. Already, OIH and Frank O’Brien pay salaries to their employees—money the employees may use to purchase contraceptives or to contribute to a religious organization. By comparison,the contribution to a health care plan has no more than a de minimus impact on the plaintiff’s religious beliefs than paying salaries and other benefits to employees.
Under plaintiffs’ interpretation of RFRA, a law substantially burdens one’s religion whenever it requires an outlay of funds that might eventually be used by a third party in a manner inconsistent with one’s religious values. This is at most a de minimus burden on religious practice. The challenged regulations are several degrees removed from imposing a substantial burden on OIH, and one further degree removed from imposing a substantial burden on OIH’s owner and manager, Frank O’Brien. Because there is no substantial burden imposed on either plaintiff’s religious exercise, plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under RFRA.
There are a few dozen similar cases filed all over the country and this is one of the first rulings to come down on it.