The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that every health insurance plan, including plans provided by employers, offer preventive health services with no cost sharing. For the purposes of the new law, the Department of Health and Human Services defined appropriate preventive benefits for women to include the entire range of FDA approved contraceptive methods. This requirement immediately outraged numerous non-profit and for-profit companies who claim that it went against their religious beliefs.
For example, Catholic organizations stated that Catholic doctrine opposes any kind of birth control, while other Christian organizations claimed they opposed covering the morning after pill because they believe it to be a form of abortion, despite scientific research to the contrary. The ACA attempted to solve this problem by offering public and non-profit faith-based employers (i.e. universities and hospitals) an exemption from this provision. This exemption did not put the issue to rest, however, and to this date, both public and private employers have filed 84 different lawsuits in regard to the contraception requirement.
Private Sector cases to be Heard by Supreme Court
The religious exemption does not apply to private employers, and many business owners have brought claims in court alleging the contraception requirement violates their constitutional right to freedom of religion. However, no court has ever decided that a for-profit company was protected under federal religious freedom laws. The Supreme Court of the United States recently announced that it would hear two of the cases, which were among the earliest filed and appealed.
The first case was brought by Conestoga Wood, a private Pennsylvania company owned by a Mennonite family who claimed they should be able to integrate their faith into their daily lives, including the operations of their company. The Third Circuit rejected the idea that a private company could assert a religious liberty claim.
The second case involves Hobby Lobby, a company owned and operated by an Evangelical Christian family. In that case, the Tenth Circuit issued a ruling that for-profit companies may have the ability to assert religious liberty based oppositions to provisions of the ACA. Because the Tenth and Third Circuits can to opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court will hear both cases, likely this spring, and will decide once and for all whether private companies may be exempt from the ACA contraception provision.
Many employment law specialists and politicians worry that allowing companies to seek exemption will open the floodgates and cause many business owners to try to avoid covering contraception in order to save money, and not for actual religious reasons. How these cases will affect employees remains to be seen, but will hopefully be settled before the end of this Supreme Court term.
If you have any questions regarding employment benefits and employer coverage, you should feel free to contact the employment law attorneys at HKM for assistance.