Wide Exemptions to Contraceptive Mandate Draw Fire in PA

This still from video shows Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, outside a courthouse in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, 2017. Pennsylvania is leading a challenge there against expanded exemptions to the contraception mandate, a provision of the federal health care law that requires employers to cover contraceptive care for workers.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — With new religious exemptions to the contraceptive mandate set to dawn on Monday, a lawyer for Pennsylvania urged the federal judge who put the new rule on hold in 2017 to issue a new injunction. 

Making the case that the Trump administration expanded the exemptions without following the normal rulemaking process, Chief Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer argued Thursday that states will bear the costs as more than 70,000 women are denied essential preventative health care.

“If women lose coverage, as is the inevitable result, we will see an increase in unintended pregnancies,” Fischer said. “These women are likely to turn to government-funding services for either Medicaid or family-planning assistance.” 

Quick to dispute this notion, however, was Becket attorney Mark Rienzi, representing the Catholic religious order Little Sisters of the Poor.

As one of his clients prayed beneath her breath during the hearing, Rienzi argued that women have other opportunities apart from their employer to obtain contraceptives.

He also made the point that the federal government could provide free contraceptives instead of making nonprofits give them out. 

“Ten federal courts have said this substantially burdens religion,” Rienzi said of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.

Deputy Attorney General Aimee Thompson shot back on this point for the state, however, arguing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not a grant of authority.

Thompson also accused the government of failing to address some of the significant comments it received regarding the rule change, like how pregnancy can be fatal for some.

“Contraception is, at the end of the day, health care, and they should not have to go to a different place to get those services,” Thompson said. 

Fischer meanwhile made the point that allowing publicly traded companies to assert religious or moral objections would be devastating. 

Urging U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone to issue a nationwide injunction, Fischer said such relief is appropriate “due to the integrative nature of health care in this country.” 

He noted that, in addition to Granite States turning to state-funded plans if religious exemptions reduce their coverage, Pennsylvania could also be forced to support those with health care plans based in other states. Commuters and college students on their parents’ plans are just a few examples of this group, Fischer added. 

“Well over half of unplanned pregnancies in the country end up imposing burdens on the state,” he said. “This will burden every state.” 

Justice Department Justin Sandberg scoffed at this argument. 

“There’s no need for a nationwide injunction based on a series of maybes,” Sandberg said, saying the state offered no evidence that companies will actually invoke the religious exemption. 

Rienzi’s clients the Little Sisters of the Poor have been in and out of courtrooms fighting the contraceptive mandate since 2013. Indeed oral arguments for another of their cases is set to be heard Friday in Oakland, California.

Judge Beetlestone assured the parties Thursday in Philadelphia meanwhile that she will have her ruling before the final rule on religious and moral objections to the contraceptive mandate goes into effect on Jan. 14. Ahead of today’s hearing, Pennsylvania brought an amended complaint in the case with the state of New Jersey as a co-plaintiff.

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