Third Circuit Blocks Trump Administration’s Birth Control Exemptions

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Rebuking an initiative from President Donald Trump and his administration, the Third Circuit on Friday blocked 2017 rules that allow more entities to deny insurance coverage for contraception due to religious or moral objections.

The ruling affirms a district court injunction that was awarded to state officials of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who originally brought the underlying action.

A group of Catholic nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor intervened in the case earlier this year, throwing their support behind the Trump administration policy, introduced via executive order, expanding exemptions to the contraceptive mandate in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, due to moral convictions.

A religious entity such as the Little Sisters is already not subject to the Obamacare mandate, but it argued in any case that the cost of providing contraceptive care should fall on the state and not a given employees’ insurance plan.

In her 56-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving that the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies responsible for the rules did not follow Administrative Procedures Act or Affordable Care Act procedures, and that the rules are not required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Shwartz found that the plaintiffs proved imminent injury, saying that they “provided evidence showing that the exemption will result in the expenditure of state funds because some women who lose coverage will inevitably seeks out state-sponsored programs providing contraceptive services,” while others would forego contraceptive care, leaving the states “to shoulder the costs of unintended pregnancies.”

Shwartz stressed that “cost is a significant barrier to contraceptive use and access,” and that “the most effective forms of contraceptives are the most expensive.” Therefore, if employers were allowed to opt out, the Obamacare mandate would no longer remove those cost barriers, leaving some women with no insurance subsidizing the cost for effective contraceptives.

Birth control pills (AP file photo)

The circuit judge also did not buy the Trump administration’s tack that they had good cause and statutory grounds to circumvent the normal procedure for enacting the kinds of rules they were after, which requires an agency to publish what it wants to do and then consider public comments.

“The agencies assert that both grounds justify their decision to forego notice-and-comment procedures here,” Shwartz wrote. “They are mistaken.”

Shwartz went on to say that “the agencies’ desire to address the purported harm to religious objections does not ameliorate the need to follow appropriate procedures,” and that the agencies’ rationale demonstrated a “lack of open-mindedness.”

As for the administration’s arguments based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Shwartz resisted the idea that the RFRA requires the religious exemption even if it provided the statutory authority to do so.

She stated in her ruling that the status quo “did not infringe on the religious exercise of covered employers” and that the RFRA does not demand the religious exemption.

Whether any further appeal to the Supreme Court from the Trump administration is forthcoming remains to seen, but for now the administration’s attempt to deregulate the Obamacare mandate will be enjoined.

“Yet another court has stopped this administration from sanctioning discrimination under the guise of religion or morality,” said Louis Melling, ACLU deputy legal director in a statement. “The Trump administration’s rules authorized employers and universities to strip women of birth control coverage- a benefit guaranteed to them by law, and meant to advance their health and equality. We applaud the order to enjoin the enforcement of these discriminatory rules.”

Representatives for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Little Sisters of the Poor could not be immediately reached for comment Friday after business hours.

From 2015 to 2017, 65 % of women age 15-49 were currently using a contraceptive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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