There are so many different legal challenges to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act that it’s hard to keep up with them all (and I’m not really trying, only taking note of a few). But in Michigan, we now have conflicting rulings from two different district courts and a split ruling from the appeals court.
In the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan won a preliminary injunction forbidding enforcement of the law against his property management company, Domino’s Farms. You can read that ruling here. But in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, another federal judge has made the opposite ruling, denying a preliminary injunction. You can read that ruling here. And the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that denial in a 2-1 decision. You can read that ruling here.
One of the key disputes is whether the courts have to accept a plaintiff’s claims that the law constitutes a substantial burden on their religious freedom or whether the judges have to do an inquiry into whether that’s true or not. In the Monaghan case, Judge Lawrence Zatkoff said:
Monaghan contends that his compliance with the mandate would require him to violate his religious beliefs because the mandate forces him, and/or the corporation he controls, to pay for, provide, facilitate, or otherwise support contraception, sterilization and to some extent, abortion….
The Supreme Court has held that “putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs” substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion…. [T]he Court is in no position to decide whether and to what extent Monaghan would violate his religious beliefs by complying with the mandate…. Other courts have assumed that a law substantially burdens a person’s free exercise of religion based on that person’s assertions.
Plaintiffs argue, in essence, that the Court cannot look beyond their sincerely held assertion of a religiously based objection to the mandate to assess whether it actually functions as a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. But if accepted, this theory would mean that every government regulation could be subject to the compelling interest and narrowest possible means test of RFRA based simply on an asserted religious basis for objection. This would subject virtually every government action to a potential private veto based on a person’s ability to articulate a sincerely held objection tied in some rational way to a particular religious belief. Such a rule would paralyze the normal process of governing, and threaten to replace a generally uniform pattern of economic and social regulation with a patchwork array of theocratic fiefdoms.
RFRA is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows individuals and organizations to ask for an exemption from a generally applicable law if that law imposes a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion. The plaintiffs in the Autocam case quickly appealed the denial of the preliminary injunction to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and a panel there upheld the district court’s denial of that injunction by a 2-1 margin.
There is one key difference between the two cases, which is that Autocam self-insures and gives its employees $1500 a year for a health care savings account. The fact that their employees can already use that money to purchase contraception coverage, thereby “forcing” the company to indirectly fund what they claim is a substantial burden on their religious freedom figured in the district court’s ruling. Domino’s Farms, on the other hand, have a conventional group insurance policy.