Category Archives: Contraceptive Coverage

Columbia Law Experts Denounce Federal Guidance Allowing Religious and Moral Discrimination in Contraceptive Coverage

Press Statement: October 6, 2017

Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) condemns the Trump administration for issuing sweeping new rules today that roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s birth control benefit, by broadening exemptions for employers who claim religious or moral objections to offering birth control to their workers. These regulations place the religious and moral views of employers above the health and wellbeing of their workers and gut the contraceptive coverage provision of the ACA by dramatically reducing access to affordable birth control. Rather than protecting religious freedom for all Americans, these regulations are part of the current administration’s ongoing effort to advance a limited set of conservative religious beliefs while limiting the liberty and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.

For over seven years, the religious right has waged a battle to limit the scope of preventive health care services covered by the ACA, including essential reproductive health care. In 2014, they won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that secular for-profit companies could assert religion-based waivers from the duty to include health care coverage for contraceptives in their employee health plans. The Court’s opinion hinged, however, on the fact that women would still have access to such care, which would be covered by their insurance plan rather that their employer. After another three years of litigation and intense lobbying, anti-choice advocates have at long last succeeded in making it possible for employers to entirely cut off their employee’s access to contraceptive coverage, not only because of their religious objections, but now because of their moral objections as well.

In depriving workers and their families of essential health care coverage, the regulation violates both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. By requiring workers to bear the cost of their employer’s religious beliefs, the regulation conflicts with a clear line of Supreme Court cases which hold that where a government-created religious accommodation imposes serious harms on others, it ceases to be a valid protection of personal faith and instead becomes an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

“With these new rules, the federal government is giving the green light to employers to discriminate against their women workers, and those seeking access to reproductive care, in the name of religious liberty or individual moral belief,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. “The fundamental health care needs of working women are now held hostage by right wing interest groups,” Franke concluded.

As PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program (RJP) has noted in the past, these types of rules have an especially devastating impact on women of color. Women of color have higher unintended pregnancy rates than their white counterparts and face increasing difficulties in accessing care. Eliminating these disparities requires increasing access to contraception and family planning resources, which allow women of color to plan whether and when they have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom. “Research shows that teen pregnancy rates have dropped to an all-time low in recent years due to increased access to affordable, quality contraception and education about family planning,” said Kira Shepherd, Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “Native Americans, Black communities and Latinas, who have the highest teen pregnancy rates of all communities, stand to be harmed the most by these new rules, which limit young women’s and people’s ability to make informed choices about their reproductive health and lives. Here, the Trump administration has once again shown that it cares little about the health and wellbeing of communities of color.”

“President Trump’s repeated efforts to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries—which a circuit court said drips ‘with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination’—demonstrate that the administration is not concerned with protecting religious freedom for everyone,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of PRPCP. “These rules are just another demonstration of the ongoing effort to push conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction onto others who do not share those beliefs.”

Access a .pdf of this statement here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Release-ACA-10-6

Learn more about PRPCP’s staff here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Staff

For more information on the PRPCP, visit our website: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

 

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Press Advisory: Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Date: May 4, 2017

From: Columbia Law School, The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP)

Contact: Ashe McGovern | amcgovern@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

President Trump is set to sign a far-reaching and constitutionally problematic executive order today. Although a draft of the final order has not yet been released, it will likely mirror, at least in part, a similar draft that was leaked earlier this year. While more detailed analysis will be necessary once the final order has been released, the leaked order raises the following issues. Specifically, the order:

Defines “people” to include for-profit corporations—even corporations that do not have an exclusively religious purpose. The order defines a “person” to be consistent with 1 U.S.C 1, which includes for-profit corporations.  This means that where the order affirms the right of “people” to act in accordance with a particular set of religious beliefs, including opposition to LGBTQ equality, it enables for-profit corporations to act in a discriminatory manner. These companies would be shielded from government intervention and enforcement of otherwise applicable laws, as long as they assert that their behavior is in keeping with a particular set of “religious beliefs.” The order also defines “religious organization” to include closely held for-profit corporations “operated for a religious purpose even if its purpose is not exclusively religious and is not controlled by or associated with a house of worship.” Thus an organization that is primarily engaged in secular activities, but claims to have some set of guiding religious principles—which the order fails to limit or define—could qualify as a religious organization. It would then be granted the protections religious organizations are given under this order.

Grants broad exemptions from federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws to private and nonprofit organizations that are funded by the federal government to provide social services, education, healthcare, employment opportunities or other services to the general public. The order states that “persons and organizations do not forfeit their religious freedom” when contracting with the federal government in delivering services to the general public. This means that private organizations, even those that are funded by the federal government, will be shielded from claims that they have violated civil rights and nondiscrimination law as long as they claim their behavior is in accordance with a set of religious beliefs that they are free to define. This also means that the federal government will be unable to require religious grantees to provide publicly-funded services on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Enables federal contractors to impose their religious beliefs on their workers as a condition of employment. The order states that all agencies must provide exemptions to federal contractors and grantees consistent with religious exemptions found within the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. These exemptions have been carefully tailored and limited by the courts, and do not currently apply to federal contractors. Applying them to federal contractors would impermissibly expand the exemptions, and allow federally-funded organizations to require that their employees follow particular religious beliefs or behaviors in order to remain employed.

Grants broad religious exemptions to federal employees acting in their official capacities as government workers, including workers that regularly interact with the public. The order requires agencies to “accommodate” the religious beliefs of federal employees, even where those beliefs conflict with their official duties as government employees. This could mean that a federal employee, who works for the Social Security Administration, for example, could refuse to process an application for a same-sex couple, a transgender person or a person of different faith, by stating that their religious beliefs prohibit them from doing so.

Directs relevant federal agencies to exempt any organization, whether religious or secular, from having to provide comprehensive reproductive services and healthcare to their workers. The order directs the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury to issue an immediate interim rule that “exempts from the preventative care mandate…all persons and religious organizations that object to complying with the mandate for religious or moral reasons.” The order also directs HHS to take “appropriate actions” to ensure that “any individuals” who purchase health insurance on the individual markets, including federally facilitated and state sponsored health insurance, have the ability to purchase insurance that does not provide coverage for abortion and “does not subsidize plans that do provide such coverage.” This means that any for-profit employer can be granted a religious exemption from the requirement that they or their health plans provide contraceptive and family planning services. This would substantially broaden the Supreme Court’s holding in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which applied only to closely-held corporations. The order would also require state and federal exchanges to include plans that prohibit family planning services. Furthermore, it would preempt state laws that require health plans to cover birth control and abortion.

Allows federally-funded child welfare services and agencies to discriminate on any basis, including on the basis of race or religion, if doing so would “conflict with the organization’s religious beliefs.” This includes organizations that “provide federally funded child-welfare services, including promoting or providing adoption, foster, or family support services for children, or similar services.” This means that organizations that provide foster or adoptive services would be empowered to discriminate against same-sex couples, people of other faiths, unmarried people, or others whose relationships or behaviors do not conform to the organization’s particular religious beliefs.

Allows religious organizations and houses of worship to engage in political lobbying, while still maintaining their tax-exempt status. Specifically, this order would allow an organization that is speaking on a “moral or political issue from a religious perspective” to endorse or support political candidates. Currently, the tax code prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This provision would exempt religious organizations—and only religious organizations—from that mandate. The order also prohibits the Department of Treasury from imposing any tax penalty or burden to any organization that acts in accordance with beliefs that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy physiology or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

Enacts far-reaching requirements on all federal departments and agencies to promptly rescind any rulings, directives, regulations, guidance, positions, or interpretations that are inconsistent with the order. This means that directives, rulings, regulations, guidance and interpretations that do not provide expansive religious exemptions may be rescinded or withdrawn by any agency or department of the federal government. This could include already existing protections enacted under the Obama administration for LGBTQ communities, women, and people of color, in their ability to seek access to reproductive services, employment, healthcare, education or social services.

Access a .pdf of this Press Advisory here.

For more policy analyses from the PRPCP, see our Policy Page, here.

Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

Press Advisory: Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

Date: May 3, 2017

From: Columbia Law School, The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP)

Contact: Liz Boylan | eboyla@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167 

Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

In February, a draft of an Executive Order (EO) on religious liberty was leaked from the Trump Administration. This order would have had sweeping effects on the enforcement of federal law by all government agencies. In addition to harming LGBTQ communities, it would have had ramifications for unmarried pregnant and parenting women, patients seeking contraceptive care, religious minorities, cohabitating adults and others. President Trump is expected to sign an updated draft of the EO this week. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) has outlined five questions to ask when analyzing and reporting on the new order.

For more thorough analyses of religious exemptions, please visit our website, which includes numerous publications on the legal and policy implications of funding organizations that discriminate based on religion, religious exemptions’ effect on women of color, and an analysis of the First Amendment Defense Act. Additional analysis of the EO will also be posted to our website in the coming days.

1) Who does the EO apply to?  

Religious exemptions are special rights that allow religious practitioners to violate laws that conflict with their sincerely-held beliefs. A religious exemption, like the forthcoming EO, can apply to houses of worship, religious organizations, and/or individuals. It’s important to read the definition of “religious organization” carefully, however, as this term can often include large corporations that appear secular, like a hospital system or even a for-profit company. The term “person” is generally defined by federal law to include for-profit, publicly-traded companies like Walmart and ExxonMobil. Thus if the EO provides religious exemptions to all “persons,” this would go beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which held that closely-held, for-profit companies are entitled to religious exemptions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

2) What religious beliefs are protected? 

Recent proposed and enacted religious exemptions, including a leaked draft of the EO, have singled out for special protection particular conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction. These include the belief that: 1) marriage is the union of one man and one woman; 2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; 3) male and female refer to an individual’s sex as determined at birth; and 4) human life begins at conception. Providing government support for particular religious beliefs raises serious Establishment Clause and Equal Protection concerns, as highlighted by a recent federal court opinion.

However other parts of the previously-leaked EO appear to apply far more broadly. For example, the requirement that federal agencies should “not promulgate regulations, take actions, or enact policies that substantially burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious exercise” could cover any religious belief.

3) Who is authorized to grant a religious exemption?

RFRA is a broad religious liberty law that prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. Typically, it is the judiciary’s responsibility to interpret and apply RFRA through litigation between a private party and the government. The leaked EO, however, orders federal agencies to interpret (RFRA) preemptively in deciding whether or not to enforce federal laws.

For example, under the EO the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could interpret RFRA to exempt employers with a religious opposition to hiring transgender workers from compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It could then decline to bring suits on behalf of, or even provide right-to-sue letters to, transgender workers who are discriminated against because of their employer’s religious beliefs. In such instances, it could be difficult to challenge an agency’s overly-broad interpretation of RFRA.

4) Who is harmed?

It’s clear that the proposed EO will harm many LGBTQ people. Less obvious, however, are the sweeping effects it is likely to have on many other groups. The leaked version of the EO specifically protects religious opposition to sex outside marriage; a provision that could sanction discrimination against unmarried pregnant and parenting women and cohabitating, unmarried adults more generally. The leaked EO would also gut the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act, limiting coverage of necessary health care.  Religious practitioners, and especially religious minorities, could also be harmed. The EO would allow discrimination against those who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs. Further, it places government support behind particular religious beliefs that many religious observers do not share, such as the belief that a fertilized egg should be protected over the health of a pregnant person.

5) Are government contractors and employees included?

The leaked EO would provide broad religious exemptions to government contractors and employees, which poses particular Establishment Clause risks. It states that organizations do not “forfeit their religious freedom” when receiving government grants or contracts and orders agencies to provide religious exemptions to grantees. It also orders agencies to accommodate both federal employees and grantees who act upon the four particular religious beliefs outlined in question two, above. Thus the EO would allow faith-based organizations to place religious restrictions on the use of government funds, and to discriminate while carrying out government programs. It would also protect government employees who wish to act on their religious opposition to LGBTQ rights, extramarital sex, and reproductive health care.

Download a .pdf of this press advisory, here.

For more legal analyses from the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, see our policy page, here.

Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color

PRESS RELEASE

FROM: PUBLIC RIGHTS/PRIVATE CONSCIENCE PROJECT

RE: New Report Reveals That Religious Exemptions Laws Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color

MEDIA CONTACT: Kira Shepherd, 215-908-4825, ks3377@columbia.edu

New York, NY – A new report shows how recent legislative efforts to expand religious liberty rights, such as the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), allow religious objectors to violate laws that protect against pregnancy, familial status, and marital status discrimination. These measures will disproportionately impact women of color who are more likely to become pregnant and raise families when unmarried. The report issued by Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/ Private Conscience Project (PRPCP), entitled Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color, highlights. the under-examined negative consequences of many religious exemption bills – how overly-broad religious exemption laws can be used to undermine sexual liberty and equality rights.

Many recently proposed religious exemptions bills, most notably FADA, which President Trump has highlighted as a top legislative priority, would confer special protections for the religiously motivated belief that sexual relations should only take place between married different-sex persons. By allowing religious objectors to defy all laws that conflict with their religious beliefs about sex and marriage, FADA and similar bills would significantly undermine the reach of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Fair Housing Act, and Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Such exemptions would permit (if not encourage) religious objectors to engage in a wide range of discriminatory acts against unmarried pregnant and parenting persons, including denial of employment, housing, public benefits, and access to social services. An earlier report by PRPCP offers an overview of state and federal religious exemption bills.

Although these bills have the potential to harm anyone who has had sex when unmarried, people of color, especially African Americans, would particularly suffer their effects. This is because among all racial groups, African Americans are the most likely to have and raise children outside of marriage. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 70% of African American children are born to parents who are not married, followed by 67% percent of Native American children, and 53% percent of Hispanic children, compared with 35% for children born to white women. In addition, because most women of color earn less than white women and are less likely to have financial cushions, religious exemptions laws that sanction employment, housing, and benefits discrimination stand to present women of color with far greater financial burdens.

“This report shows that policymakers across the nation are leveraging religion to push forward crude and discriminatory laws that impose extreme financial, dignitary, and emotional harm on women of color and their families,” said Kira Shepherd, Associate Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “These laws could turn back the clock on some of the progress this country has made towards racial justice. They have the potential to take us back to a dark era where certain religious views were used as a justification for legal discrimination.”

PRPCP Director Elizabeth Reiner Platt said, “Women of color already face disproportionately high rates of pregnancy discrimination. In the name of protecting religious beliefs, FADA and similar state-level exemptions would impose yet another burden on many low-income families and families of color.”

Read the full report here.

PRPCP is a think tank based at Columbia Law School whose mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty. To learn more about the organization visit our website at: http://web.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project.

PRPCP is on Facebook and Twitter.  Follow us to keep up to date with the latest information regarding our research, programs, and events.

PRPCP’s Comment Regarding Zubik

This week the Public Rights Private Conscience Project (PCPCP) submitted a letter to the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in response to their request for information (RFI) regarding an accommodation for religious employers who do not wish to provide their employees with insurance coverage for no-cost contraceptive care, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The request came shortly after the Supreme Court punted a case on this very topic back to the lower courts, leaving religious freedom and women’s health advocates in limbo regarding the mandate’s fate.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, combined separate challenges from religious non-profits to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, which requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees. The religious accommodation to the mandate allowed religious non-profits to file a one-page form with the HHS to opt out, and made health insurance companies or third-party administrators responsible for stepping in to provide this coverage without involvement or funds from the employer. But the non-profits asserted that even this requirement violated their religious beliefs. The government holds that the accommodation complies with relevant laws protecting religious freedom, such as the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 to protect religious minorities.

In the RFI, the government states that their commitment to religious freedom and desire to find an accommodation that works for all led to the public information request.  The government also recognized that the Zubik decision “affect(s) a wide variety of stakeholders, including many who are not parties to the cases that were before the Supreme Court,” which they say increased their desire to find an effective solution to the problem presented in Zubik.

The RFI asks the public to comment on two alternatives to the ACA religious accommodation. The first alternative would allow religious non-profits to contract with insurers for coverage that did not include contraceptives and then the insurer would have to notify employees separately and explain that they would provide no-cost contraceptive coverage independent of the employer’s health plan. Here, the religious employer would only have to verbally notify the insurer of their objection, rather than through a form. The second alternative was for women employees to affirmatively enroll in policies that only covered contraceptives.

In the comment that PRPCP submitted we began by discussing how the existing religious accommodation does not offend RFRA:

“RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The current accommodation meets this standard for two reasons: first, it does not impose a burden, much less one that is substantial in nature, on religious exercise and second, it is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests in ensuring access to contraceptives, a necessary part of basic preventative health care, and avoiding violations of the Establishment Clause.”

PRPCP then discusses how the alternative accommodations proposed by the plaintiffs would impose harms on employees and their families and risk violating the Establishment Clause. Here, we noted that a number of Supreme Court cases have held that the Establishment Clauses was violated when a government-created religious accommodation imposed serious harms on other private individuals. We stated:

“Both of the alternative accommodations put forth in the RFI would impose a significant harm on non-beneficiaries, most notably employees and their families. The first alternative, by providing ample opportunity for confusion, misrepresentation, and further RFRA litigation, would make employees susceptible to extensive gaps in necessary contraceptive coverage. Further, by making enforcement of the contraceptive mandate significantly more difficult, it would impose costs on both employees and the government. The second alternative would impose significant burdens on third parties by requiring health plans to create, and employees to seek out and enroll in, contraceptive-only health plans. These plans would likely face substantial administrative and financial difficulties. Furthermore, they would result in fewer employees and families having adequate access to contraceptive health care.”

Lastly, we mentioned how important seamless access to cost-free contraceptive care is for women of color, a conversation that is oftentimes left out of the discussion about religious accommodations to the ACA. PRCPC noted:

“Eliminating disparities in reproductive health care, including high rates of unintended pregnancy, involves increasing access to contraception and family planning resources. Access to contraception allows women of color to plan whether and when they will have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom.  Many women of color, who on average earn significantly less than white women, cannot afford to pay for quality contraception. For example, the IUD is considered the most effective form of contraception available on the market today and costs between $500.00 and $1,000.00 without insurance. Because of its high cost, among other factors, only six percent of Black women have used IUDs compared with seventy-eight percent who have used birth control pills, which have higher user failure rates.  Providing women of color with access to contraceptive coverage at no additional cost will help to reduce the reproductive health disparities that we see in communities of color. This is an important first step in ameliorating the overall health disparities between women of color and white women in the United States.”

We applaud the Department’s commitment to religious freedom as mentioned in the RFI, however hope this commitment does not outweigh its duty to uphold the rights of women seeking cost-free contraceptive coverage. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dodged making a decision on this important

The Latest On Zubik v. Burwell: Religious Organizations Propose A Compromise That They Themselves Would Oppose

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches

With headlines like “53 Percent Say Making Nuns Participate in Obamacare Birth Control Mandate is Unfair,” the conservative Christian press has found its angle on Zubik v. Burwell. For the rest of us, here’s a way through the legal thicket.

Two weeks ago, following oral argument in the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate, the Supreme Court issued an unusual order. Acting more like a mediator than the nation’s highest court, it asked the parties to try and find a compromise solution that would ensure employees and their families receive cost-free contraceptive coverage without a burdening the employers’ religious beliefs.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, involves a number of religious nonprofits that object to the existing religious accommodation they receive under the ACA. The current accommodation allows religious employers that do not wish to provide birth control coverage to their employees to opt out by submitting a form to the federal government. If they do this, the government requires the nonprofit’s insurance company or third party administrator to provide separate contraceptive coverage. Religious organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor—those headline-friendly nuns—argue that even this workaround violates their religious liberty, because providing the form makes them complicit in the provision of birth control. They claim that the accommodation violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute enacted in 1993 which forbids the federal government from burdening religious exercise unless there is no less burdensome way to achieve a compelling government interest.

The Supreme Court order asked both sides to file supplemental briefing on “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”

In other words, is there a way to give both sides what they want?

The religious nonprofits responded confidently in their brief, “[t]he answer to that question is clear and simple: Yes.” Unfortunately, what follows is a convoluted “no.” The alternatives put forward by the petitioners include contraceptive-only insurance plans that do not currently exist, would create significant state and federal regulatory challenges (for one, they may not be enforceable contracts under some state laws), would limit access to contraceptives—and which the organizations would in fact still oppose.

The petitioners’ brief explains that “at a minimum,” an acceptable solution would require “two separate health insurance policies (that is, the group health insurance policy and the individual contraceptive coverage policy)” with “separate enrollment processes, insurance cards, payment sources, and communication streams.” Unlike the current accommodation that provides for “seamless” birth control coverage, the brief states “if the contraceptive coverage is to be truly separate, not just an automatic and unavoidable component of the petitioner’s plan, then it must have an enrollment process that is distinct from (and not an automatic consequence of) enrolling in the employer’s plan.”

In other words, employees would have to opt in to coverage, which the government has repeatedly explained will result in lower rates of access and use.

Acknowledging that contraceptive-only plans do not actually exist, the brief proposes that the government “require or incentivize commercial insurance companies to make separate contraceptive coverage plans.” Further, “[t]o the extent there are any concerns about the financial stability of a contraceptive-only plan that charges no premiums and cannot pass on any of its costs,” it suggests that the government subsidize the plans (never mind that Title X, a program which currently provides reproductive health care to low-income patients, is chronically underfunded). The brief dismisses other administrative and legal problems that such a system would create, in one instance simply claiming the “Court should discount any asserted concerns about financial or practical difficulties that might ensue should large numbers of petitioners’ employees opt for separate coverage.”

Here are four big problems with what they propose:

#1: no contraceptive-only insurance plans exist!

Moreover, we don’t know whether such plans could exist, whether they would conflict with state laws, or how they would be created, administered, and funded. It’s a completely unfeasible interpretation of RFRA to allow petitioners to demand a “less restrictive” alternative that could conceivably work in theory. The alternative must be one that will actually work in practice.

#2: It will impose burdens on employees and their families.

The proposed scheme would require employees to opt-in for contraceptive coverage. Throughout litigation, the government has emphasized that even seemingly minimal barriers to contraceptive coverage result in less access to and use of birth control. Further, requiring employees to opt-in to coverage would allow employees to cut off access to contraception for their covered family members.

#3: It will reduce access to contraceptive and non-contraceptive women’s health care.

Women generally receive annual care, including a pap smear, breast exam, STI testing and treatment, blood pressure test, and contraceptive counseling, from the same doctor during the same appointment. This makes the idea of a “contraception only” plan very different from other services like dental or vision plans—contraception is an integral part of women’s health care. By requiring employees to find doctors who accept each of their two plans, and then schedule two different appointments, the petitioner’s suggestion essentially doubles the barriers to accessing necessary healthcare. This may not seem like a hefty burden, but for women balancing childcare and low-wage jobs, and who may have limited paid sick time, it is significant.

#4: The religious nonprofits would oppose their own plan.

After laying out a supposed less restrictive alternative, the petitioners’ brief adds “[t]o be clear, that is not to say that petitioners endorse such an approach as a policy matter.” It notes that many of the nonprofits believe contraception to be “immoral,” and therefore “may disagree as a policy matter with government programs, such as Title X, that make contraceptives or abortifacients more widely available to their own employees or anyone else.” Moreover, the brief states that “petitioners certainly have the right, protected by the First Amendment, to make that disagreement known.”

What this means is that while petitioners are suggesting that the government adopt entirely new laws and regulations regarding contraceptive coverage, and allocate additional funding for contraception, they will nevertheless continue to lobby (and perhaps litigate) against these very actions.

Requiring the government to come up with an entirely new legal and regulatory alternative any time it places a substantial burden on religion—regardless of political, legal, or administrative feasibility, cost, or potential impact on third parties—is a scary prospect. This is especially true considering the weak “substantial burden” test the Court adopted in Hobby Lobby, which defers almost entirely to the religious objectors’ assessment of whether they have been burdened. Such an immoderate interpretation of RFRA would give religious objectors the power to upend complex laws and programs that are created to benefit the public at large.

Let’s say, for example, a company like Hobby Lobby had a religious objection to minimum wage laws. Under the petitioner’s argument, a less restrictive way for the government to achieve its goal of guaranteeing a living wage would be to allow the company to pay subpar wages and pass a new law allocating funds to pick up the remaining tab. A religious objection to environmental regulations? Pollute away and suggest that the government create, fund, and administer a new program to clean up the mess. A religious objection to posting OSHA notifications? Tell the government to hire workers to chase down the company’s employees and warn them about environmental hazards they may face at work.

All of these solutions would certainly be less burdensome on the employer. They also happen to be expensive, inefficient, impractical, and bordering on absurd. Moreover, they are likely to create financial and administrative burdens not just for the government, but for the company’s employees and the public. And since they are merely suggestions for less restrictive alternatives rather than mandates, Congress could decide that passing a new law is simply not worth the trouble.

The petitioner’s proposed plan is not a less restrictive alternative. It’s a less restrictive fantasy, and turns RFRA’s balancing test into a trump card for religious believers.

Why Zubik is Especially Important for Women of Color

By Elizabeth Reiner Platt and Kira Shepherd

This blog is also available at Religion Dispatches

From the forced breeding of slave women, to the eugenics movement of the 1920s to a relatively recent campaign to sterilize incarcerated women, the institutional denial of women of color’s reproductive freedom has left many mistrustful of medical institutions and the government’s attempts to interfere with their reproductive choices. This has led, in turn, to poor health and political disengagement amongst communities of color. Now, the Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik v. Burwell may effectively strip thousands of women of color of their right to no-cost insurance coverage for contraception.

For those not following the case, Zubik is a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, which requires certain employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover contraception with no co-pay. The Obama administration has already created an accommodation for religious non-profits opposed to birth control, which allows them to opt-out of paying for contraceptives while maintaining insurance coverage for their employees. The organizations suing in Zubik, however, want to prevent their employees from receiving coverage through the plans at all. They claim that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), they are entitled not just to refuse to pay for birth control themselves, but to demand that their insurance providers refuse to offer it.

While religious organizations employ women of all backgrounds, the Zubik case should be particularly concerning to women of color. Lack of access to quality reproductive health care plays a large role in the overall health disparities faced by communities of color today. Women of color have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy, abortion, and maternal mortality, all of which have taken a toll on the psychological, economic, and social vitality of these communities.

Moreover, as abortion clinics across the country close due to the conservative attack on abortion rights, women of color are harmed disproportionately. Clinic closings make it especially hard for low-income women and women of color to get an abortion, since many cannot afford to travel the long distances needed to reach a clinic. A recent New York Times article found that clinic closings appear to be closely linked to the uptick in searches for illegal, self-induced abortion.

In addition, women who have unintended pregnancies are more likely to abuse substances while pregnant and less likely to seek prenatal care, which can negatively impact the health of the fetus. Some unintended pregnancies cost women of color their lives. The United States is now one of only eight countries—including Afghanistan and South Sudan—where the maternal mortality rate is actually increasing. These numbers are even bleaker for women of color in the U.S., where black women are four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth.

The pervasive health disparities among communities of color can be traced back, in part, to a long legacy of reproductive coercion. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine produced astudy about the causes of racial health disparities in America. It found that many of the disparities are rooted in historic and current racial inequalities, including poor socio-economic conditions as well as implicit biases held within the medical community that lead to subpar treatment.

Eliminating the disparities in reproductive health care, including high rates of unintended pregnancy, involves increasing access to contraception and contraceptive counseling. Access to contraception allows women of color to plan whether and when they have a child, which provides them with greater financial stability and freedom. Women of color, on average, earn significantly less than white women, and many cannot afford to pay for quality contraception.

The IUD, for example, is considered the most effective contraception available on the market today, but because it costs between $500 to $1000 only 6% of black women have used IUDs compared with 78% who have used birth control pills. Providing women of color with access to no-cost contraceptive coverage is an important first step in ameliorating the overall health disparities between women of color and white women in the United States.

It should be no surprise that when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked The Institute of Medicine to come up with a list of women’s health services that should qualify as preventive care and require no co-pay under the Affordable Care Act, the Institute included contraceptive care and counseling in their recommendations, two services that can help right some of the wrongs done to women of color in the area of reproductive justice and liberty. It would be a grave injustice for the Supreme Court to allow the plaintiffs in Zubik—and others who might follow in their wake—to take us one step back.