Religiously affiliated institutions may not prevent third parties from providing contraceptive coverage for students and staff who want it, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today on behalf of almost 250 college and university students and staff who could lose access to vital medical care, Americans United told the U.S. Supreme Court that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) doesn’t permit religiously affiliated organizations to block insurance companies from providing such coverage. The brief includes numerous descriptions from women about how access to contraception has enabled them to prevent unintended pregnancies, focus on their educational and professional goals, and treat serious medical conditions.
“In the future, I would like to have a family,” explains one of the amici in the brief. “But right now, I am working towards a degree and I am not in a financial position to raise a child. I owe money for my undergraduate, graduate, and law-school degrees. Every cent I save counts. Contraception enables me to focus on my degree and puts me in control of my own reproductive health."
These and many other stories highlight the serious harms that women would suffer if religious objectors were permitted to block their access to contraceptive coverage.
“Religious colleges, nursing homes and other entities have been given a generous accommodation,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “They don’t have to pay for birth control. All they have to do is tolerate the fact that some of their students and staff might want to use it.”
The federal government announced in February 2012 that religious institutions would be able to opt out of paying directly for contraceptive coverage as part of an accommodation to the Affordable Care Act’s coverage regulations. Under the compromise, these groups are not required to pay for the birth control or coverage for birth control; they must simply inform the government of their objection so that the government can arrange for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive coverage.
But dozens of religiously affiliated institutions are not satisfied with that exemption, claiming that RFRA, a 1993 federal law intended to protect religious minorities from government overreach, gives them the right to stop their students, staff and employees from accessing contraceptives even though the religious organizations do not have to pay for or provide coverage for those products.
In its brief for Zubik v. Burwell, which is one of seven consolidated cases before the high court, Americans United says religiously affiliated institutions do not have the right to stop anyone from accessing medical care regardless of how a group feels morally about specific types of medicine.
Americans United is the only national group representing a directly affected woman in this dispute, having successfully intervened on behalf of a University of Notre Dame student in January 2014. These actions are part of Americans United’s Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBT persons and others.
“The voices of affected women have been conspicuously absent from most of the lawsuits seeking to block contraceptive coverage,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “As our brief makes clear, women will suffer concrete and profound harms if religious objectors succeed in blocking their access to vital healthcare.”
The brief was written by Lipper, Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, and Madison Fellow Natacha Y. Lam on behalf of students and staff at institutions including University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Fordham University, DePaul University and Loyola Marymount University.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.