Americans United filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging multiple actions by the Trump-Pence administration – including back-room deals with the University of Notre Dame – that would deny countless women access to contraception.
We, along with our partners at the National Women’s Law Center, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the law firm Macey Swanson LLP, are representing students at Notre Dame, which has cited religious objections as it vows to end students’ and faculty’s coverage for certain forms of birth control, in violation of the Affordable Care Act. Our clients include individuals on the student and faculty health plans, as well as the student group Irish 4 Reproductive Health, which works to advance reproductive justice at the university and in the surrounding community.
Our lawsuit challenges harmful rules that the Trump administration issued last October that allow employers and universities to cite religious objections in order to deny employees and students health-insurance coverage of contraception. No employer or university should be able to use religion to dictate their employees’ or students’ health care choices. Birth control protects women’s health and helps women plan their families; it allows them to participate in the workforce and pursue their education. In other words, it is critical to their health and equality.
As you may recall, we previously filed a lawsuit on behalf of Notre Dame students at risk of losing coverage. We agreed to dismiss that lawsuit when the university announced that it would not follow the Trump rules and would maintain birth control access.
Several days after we dropped our case, however, Notre Dame reversed course and announced that it does indeed intend to deny coverage of some methods of birth control to its students and employees, and that it will begin to charge a copay for other methods. We’ve headed back to court to fight that decision.
But here’s the kicker: Notre Dame, for now, can’t rely on the Trump rules to justify its decision because two federal courts have blocked them from taking effect. It turns out that, separate and apart from the rules, the university has secretly negotiated with the Trump administration. Those negotiations resulted in a settlement agreement between the government and Notre Dame that purports to give the university the right to violate the Affordable Care Act and not provide contraception coverage. Notre Dame had challenged the “accommodation process” that the government created to accommodate those with religious objections to contraception – under that process, an objecting entity can fill out a simple form informing its insurer or the government of its objection, at which point the entity’s third-party insurer becomes responsible for separately providing contraception coverage.
The overwhelming majority of the courts that heard challenges to the accommodation process held that filling out a form does not substantially burden the religious rights of objecting organizations. But the Trump administration ignored all that, citing a misinterpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as justification for entering the settlement agreement. We’re challenging the agreement in addition to the rules because the government cannot and should not bargain away the rights of countless women, including our clients.
Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to deny access to health care. Contraception is critical to women’s health and autonomy. And it is women – not employers, not universities and not the government – who should be in charge of their own health care decisions.
(Photo: University of Notre Dame students, including members of the student group Irish 4 Reproductive Health that is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, protest the university’s plan to deny students and faculty access to birth control.)