Will SCOTUS Call the “Bluff” of Religious Liberty Activists?

If the announcement that the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement (CCR) makes you feel like you’re experiencing deja vu, you’re not exactly wrong.

After Hobby Lobby, the Administration took a slow and leisurely approach to creating new regulations for the accommodation process. Finally released in July, the regulations, among other things, instituted a process for those non-profit religious organizations (NPRO) that objected to the original accommodation.

Under the revised accommodation process, the NPROs do not have to directly inform their insurance provider or third-party administrator (meaning an entity that administers their insurance plan even if the organization pays for it themselves, which is called being “self-insured”) of their objection.

Instead the NRPO can inform the government, and the government will inform the insurance company or the TPA, which then has to provide the contraceptive coverage itself. (That is, unless the TPA is actually exempt, like the TPAs that are a form of an insurance plan called a “church plan”—the federal government lacks the ability to regulate those plans under ERISA and cannot require them to provide the coverage.)

If that seems silly—well, on some level, it kind of is. And here’s why: Inserting the government into the communication process was meant to address the complaint by some NPROs that even informing their insurance company or TPA of their objection to contraception made them complicit in the eventual provision of contraceptive coverage to their employees.

But it was never clear why an NPRO that objected to informing their insurance company or TPA was going to feel just dandy about informing the government so the government could inform the insurance company or the TPA.

In fact, of course, they didn’t—instead, various NPROs that had objected to the original form of the accommodation continued to object to the revised form of the accommodation. Until recently all the circuit courts to consider these claims had ruled against them, but then the 8th Circuit upheld a grant of preliminary relief in one of these cases, and now here we are, with the Supreme Court granting cert to several of the consolidated cases to consider a variety of questions involving NPROs’ objections to contraceptive coverage and RFRA’s requirements.

At bottom though, the question is fairly simple: Is the Supreme Court going to call the objectors’ bluff? I don’t say “bluff” because I think the NPROs are insincere—it’s not about their sincerity at this point. But the “bluff” in all of these developments is that there even exists some way of providing contraceptive coverage that the objecting NPROs would find acceptable.

And it’s been clear for a while now that the only solutions they would find acceptable are factually impossible outcomes in our current system: e.g., single-payer health care, or a government-funded birth control insurance program. Of course those are outcomes that the same organizations would be lobbying heavily against if they were proposed to Congress!

What’s really at issue here is whether the Supreme Court is going to allow religious objectors to completely opt-out of laws by continually re-defining the burden on their religious exercise, regardless of the impact on third parties and the harms done to them. And you can bet if that strategy succeeds here, we’ll see it in use very soon in other contexts, like exemptions to LGBT non-discrimination laws and marriage equality protections. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.