Judge Shuts Down Expanded Exemptions for Birth Control Coverage

Margot Riphagen of New Orleans, La., wears a birth control pills costume during a March 25, 2015, protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. A U.S. judge will hear arguments on Jan. 11, 2019, over California’s attempt to block new rules by the Trump administration that would allow more employers to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women. The new rules are set to go into effect on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A federal judge issued a nationwide injunction Monday that blocks Trump administration from letting religious nonprofits opt out of offering contraceptive coverage to their employees.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone sided with Pennsylvania and New Jersey this afternoon, putting the kibosh on rules that were officially in effect for just a few hours in 36 states. 

Coupled with a 65-page opinion, the order follows Thursday oral arguments in the Pennsylvania case and a more narrow injunction issued Sunday night by U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. in California, who prevented the rules from taking hold the Golden State, Washington, D.C. and 12 other states involved in the challenge.

Though employers are required to include free contraception as part of their health plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the Trump administration expanded exemptions to the requirement in 2017.

The new rules, which were set to take effect Monday, would have allowed employers or health insurers to opt out based on religious or moral objections with no need to certify their objection or otherwise notify the government.

While she called the case “a difficult line-drawing exercise,” Beetlestone ultimately concluded anything short of a nationwide injunction would likely fail to provide the objecting states with complete relief. 

“There is no more geographically limited injunction that protects the states from potential harm,” she wrote.

Referring to arguments made before her this past Thursday, Beetlestone noted Pennsylvania and New Jersey had adequately shown they would suffer “significant, direct and proprietary harm – both in the form of increased use of state-funded contraceptive services and the increased costs associated with unintended pregnancies – due to the loss of birth control coverage for women.

Beetlestone said the injunction is necessary because of the tens of thousands of out-of-state students both states take in each year. Both commuters and these students, who likely remain on their parents’ health care plans while they attend school, wouldn’t have access to contraceptive coverage if the out-of-state employers took advantage of the exemptions and may end up in state-funded programs, the judge found.

In a statement Monday evening, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the ruling a victory for the health and economic independence of women across America.

“Women need contraception for their health because contraception is medicine, pure and simple. Families rely on the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee to afford care; before the ACA, families spent thousands of dollars in co-pays,” Shapiro said. “Congress hasn’t changed that law, and the president can’t simply ignore it with an illegal rule. I will not allow the federal government – under the direction of the Trump administration – to undermine the rights of women and violate the rule of law.”

This case was originally brought in 2013 by a group of Catholic nuns operating a religious nonprofit called the Little Sisters of the Poor who objected to the federal government’s mandatory contraception rule. In a statement by Little Sisters’ attorneys at Beckett Law, Mark Rienzi said he was confident that both federal judges’ rulings will be overturned.

“Government bureaucrats should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor to serve according to their Catholic beliefs. Now the nuns are forced to keep fighting this unnecessary lawsuit to protect their ability to focus on caring for the poor,” Rienzi said.

Department of Justice trial attorney Justin Sandberg did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

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