U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with Obamacare contraception case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices grappled on Wednesday with whether President Donald Trump’s administration went too far in allowing employers to obtain broad religious and moral exemptions from an Obamacare requirement that health insurance that they provide employees covers women’s birth control.

At issue is a challenge by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the administration’s 2018 rule that permits broad religious and moral exemptions to the contraception mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, and expands accommodations already allowed.

The justices held their third day of arguments by teleconference of the week, a new format prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part a day after being hospitalized to undergo treatment for a benign gall bladder condition.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, a potential pivotal vote, appeared frustrated that the long-running litigation, a version of which previously reached the Supreme Court in 2016, has not led to a compromise.

“Is it really the case that there is no way to resolve those differences?” Roberts asked.

Roberts wondered if the administration’s approach was too broad by providing exemptions even to entities that had not complained about the adequacy of previous accommodations devised under Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

Liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer appeared to favor a similar approach.

“I don’t understand why this can’t be worked out,” Breyer said.

The contraceptive mandate under the law, which was signed by Obama in 2010 and has faced Republican efforts to repeal it ever since, requires that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for birth control with no co-payment. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage.

Ginsburg, at 87 the court’s oldest member, participated in the argument from Baltimore after being hospitalized for non-surgical treatment for an infection arising from a gallstone in her cystic duct.


Sometimes sounding hesitant and at other times sounding firm, Ginsburg asked three rounds of questions starting with a query to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who was arguing for the administration. Ginsburg told Francisco that Trump’s administration had “tossed entirely to the wind what Congress considered to be essential, that women be provided this service, with no hassle and no cost to them.”

The administration has asked the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, to reverse a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court blocking the rule.

Both of Trump’s appointees, conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, asked questions indicating sympathy toward the administration’s view that it has broad leeway under Obamacare to decide the scope of exemptions.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s questions, like those posed by Ginsburg, indicated they are leaning toward the states.

The administration is joined in the litigation by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns that is one of the groups seeking an exemption for its employees. Under a separate court ruling, the group already has an exemption to the mandate.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who ordinarily remains silent during arguments, again asked questions as he has done each day this week under the new format.

Rules implemented under Obama exempted religious entities from the mandate and a further accommodation was created for religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, which some groups including the Little Sisters of the Poor objected to as not going far enough.

The blocked Trump rule would allow any nonprofit or for-profit employer, including publicly traded companies, to seek an exemption on religious grounds. A moral objection can be made by nonprofits and companies that are not publicly traded. The Trump administration exemption also would be available for religiously affiliated universities that provide health insurance to students.

The legal question is whether Trump’s administration had the legal authority to expand the exemption under both the Obamacare law itself and another federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows people to press religious claims against the federal government.

The justices addressed the question of religious accommodations to the Obamacare contraception mandate once before. In 2016, they sidestepped a decision on previous rules issued under Obama, sending the dispute back to lower courts.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Judge rules for Trump administration in suit over family-planning program shift

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress protest in opposition to the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A federal judge ruled on Monday against birth control organizations that sought to block the Trump administration from shifting a federal family-planning grant program toward prioritizing groups that are faith-based and counsel abstinence.

Three planned Parenthood organizations along with the National Family Planning Reproductive Health Association filed lawsuits, which were later combined, in May challenging guidelines the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued in February.

Those guidelines set forth new criteria for how the department under Republican President Donald Trump would assess applications for grants under the Title X family planning program. The grants are expected to total $260 million.

The organizations objected to the criteria’s focus on abstinence, easier access to primary health care, increasing family participation and cooperation with faith-based organizations, according to the ruling.

The organizations argued that the changes require a notice and comment rule-making process, violate the Title X law and were “arbitrary and capricious.”

United States District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, said in his ruling that “courts cannot review substantive objections to a non-final agency action, nor can they require formal rulemaking for a change in agency procedure.”

McFadden also said that if he could rule on the merits of the case, the government’s changes align with program’s commitment to support “voluntary family projects … offering a broad range of acceptable and effective family planning methods and services.”

Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor and strident opponent of abortion, has pushed Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. The non-profit’s clinics provide contraception, health screenings and abortions.

“The Trump-Pence administration is trying to impose its ideology on people – no matter how many it hurts,” Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement on Monday, adding that the ruling could effect the health care of four million people.

Planned Parenthood health centers serve more than 40 percent of patients receiving care subsidized by Title X.

HHS could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

Trump signs order to ease ban on political activity by churches

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order on religious liberties designed to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

The order also mandates regulatory relief to religious employers that object to contraception, such as Little Sisters of the Poor.

It does not include provisions to allow government agencies and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom, as was feared by some civil liberties and gay rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement it would file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s order.

Trump, addressing religious leaders in a signing ceremony at the White House, said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more”.

“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” he said.

Trump’s order directs the Internal Revenue Service to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment,” the White House said in reference to a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas senator who later became president.

Under the tax code, organizations that enjoy tax-free status, such as churches, are prohibited from participating in a political campaign or supporting any one candidate for elective office.

This includes a ban on making financial contributions to campaigns and candidates, but the law does allow certain non-partisan political activity such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives.

Trump would need Congress to rescind the Johnson Amendment, but he can instruct his administration not to enforce it through executive order.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Susan Heavey and James Dalgleish)

Zika crisis pressures Vatican to soften contraception stance

RECIFE, Brazil (Reuters) – On the frontline of Brazil’s fight against Zika, Vandson Holanda sends Roman Catholic volunteers into the poorest areas of this city, showing residents how to protect themselves against mosquitoes that carry the virus linked to birth defects.

Get rid of trash where water accumulates and allows the mosquitoes to lay eggs. Wear plenty of repellant and clothing that covers arms and legs. Close shower drains so the insects cannot find pooled water inside your home.

But there are no lessons offered on methods to avoid getting pregnant, which Brazilian officials and international public health experts have urged women to do until the Zika epidemic is under control.

The crisis is putting pressure on Church doctrine that bans all forms of contraception, and has even stoked a debate over abortion in many conservative Latin American nations.

“I think, and this is my personal opinion, that the Church will have to re-think its position on contraception urgently as a result of Zika,” said Holanda, coordinator of the Church’s health committee in four northeastern states at the center of the epidemic.

“The current view is not realistic.”

On Thursday, Pope Francis appeared to suggest the Church could soften its ban on contraception for women as they face the Zika crisis.

“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” Francis told reporters on the papal plane as it returned to Rome following his tour of Mexico.

He said there is a precedent of exceptional dispensations allowing women to use contraception, citing a decades-old case of Pope Paul VI permitting nuns in Africa to use birth control pills because they risked being raped in political conflicts.

The pope did not elaborate further and did not indicate if the faithful who want to avoid pregnancies amid a Zika epidemic would have the Church’s explicit blessing to do so or if priests at the local level would just look the other way, at least until the Zika situation becomes clearer.

Francis did make clear there would be no change to the Church’s position on abortion. “It is a crime. It is an absolute evil.”

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether it actually causes microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that often results in neurological and developmental problems. Brazil is investigating the potential link between Zika and nearly 4,500 suspected cases of microcephaly.

Researchers have identified evidence of Zika infection in most of 508 confirmed microcephaly cases, either in the baby or in the mother, the health ministry said Wednesday, but have not confirmed that Zika was the cause.

Ahead of Francis’ visit to Mexico, a senior Vatican official said he did not expect any change to the Church’s position on birth control and Catholic scholars also said it was unlikely.

“I find it quite amazing that there has been so much attention given to contraception, birth control and abortion legislation regarding Zika, when I think much more attention should be given to the source of the Zika problem, which are mosquitoes,” said Father Robert Gahl, professor of ethics at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome.

In cases of Zika infection, the Church’s focus would be on providing a woman with the best health care possible to either avoid being infected in the first place or to care for a child with birth defects, along with pushing abstinence, he said.


In Colombia, facing a Zika crisis nearly as acute as Brazil’s, Danelia Cardona, a psychologist who is the director of the nation’s Episcopal Conference’s Department for the Promotion and Defense of Life, said questioning the Church’s position on contraception was not useful as women already make their own decisions on the matter.

She added that contraception “will not solve the Zika crisis” – only the eradication of the virus-carrying mosquitoes would.

Cardinal Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo and widely considered a leading contender to be elected pope three years ago, has appeared to offer openings for the use of condoms when it comes to halting the spread of disease, though in an emailed response to Reuters he emphasized the fight against Zika must focus on getting rid of the mosquitoes, avoiding bites and caring for those who have birth defects.

Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo and a former priest, said Zika is unquestionably sparking debate about contraception within the Church.

“Zika has put humanity in crisis and if it worsens it will force the Church to make a decision on saving human life versus saving its own dogma … There is no easy answer, there really is nothing in canon law to act as a guide,” he said.

“Zika is putting at risk the most innocent – unborn children – so it would be entirely adequate that the Church shift its position on contraceptives for this case.”

About 65 percent of Brazilians are Catholics and polls consistently show more than three-fourths of the population reject changes to laws that only allow abortion in the case of rape, if the mother’s life is in danger or in the case of anencephaly, when a fetus would be born missing parts of its brain and skull and a quick death after birth is almost certain.

But polls also show Brazilians overwhelmingly approve of using condoms when it comes to preventing pregnancies or diseases.

“As a Catholic, I’m against abortion, but ideally the Church would allow more options for women who want to prevent getting pregnant in the first place,” said Debora Mariano, a 23-year-old beautician and mother of a 6-year-old boy, as she took a work break in central Rio de Janeiro this week.

“It feels like we have little protection against Zika, that government efforts to stop it are not working, so those of us too scared to get pregnant with this illness out there have no other option but to go against the Church.”

(Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Rio de Janeiro, Philip Pullella in Rome and Julia Cobb in Bogota; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Brad Brooks; Editing by Kieran Murray)

Supreme Court Throws Out Ruling Against Catholic Group

A Catholic organization that was being threatened with fines by the IRS because they were not providing insurance coverage including contraception has been given a reprieve by the Supreme Court.

The court granted Michigan Catholic Conference their request for an exemption for religious regions against the mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services.  The ruling means that the previous decision against the group was vacated and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit must consider the Hobby Lobby decision in reviewing the case.

A counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty praised the ruling in a message to the Christian Post.

“That’s what is so bizarre about the government’s position,” said Mark Rienzi a senior counsel with the Becket Fund.

“The government says they are not a ‘religious employer’ and therefore they have to sign forms to authorize and require other people to give out contraceptives for them. That makes no sense at all.”

Rienzi said the Court will likely have to take up one of these cases in the future.

I think that the Court will continue the path it has set in the long string of mandate cases to date … and it will protect religious ministries from this mandate,” said Rienzi.

“This whole fight is unnecessary and silly. Obviously the government can distribute contraceptives without the forced involvement of the Catholic Church and its ministries. The government can put a man on the moon — they can distribute pills without religious ministries.”

The group is the sixth the justices have sided with on the issue since December 2013.

Obama Administration Ordered To Revise Contraceptive Mandate

The Obama administration is working on a plan that will allow religious non-profit organizations that object to paying for abortion causing drugs and also signing forms to allow third-party groups to cover them to completely opt-out.

A White House spokesman said they are “developing the alternative” to the original plan that “won’t involve shifting the costs to employees.”

The Obama administration was ordered by the Supreme Court to revise the rules after a 6-3 vote by the Supreme Court that Wheaton College could not be required to cover abortion-causing drugs.  The case will have trickle down impact on other cases including one involving the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The court said the rule in the healthcare law violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A source told the Associated Press the new rules will come out in about a month.

Supreme Court Rules Christian College Not Required To Provide Contraceptives

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Christian college is not required to cover emergency contraceptives it believes causes abortions.

The court ruled 6-3 to allow Wheaton College temporary relief from the birth control mandate while the case makes it’s way through the lower courts.  The court’s three liberal women justices objected to the injunction, saying that a Christian school should be forced to provide abortion-inducing drugs.

The school had been required under the health care mandate to sign forms allowing a third party to provide the abortion drugs.  The school says that permitting someone else to provide the service inherently makes them complicit in allow the abortion drugs to be given to end the lives of babies.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor, writing for the three liberal justices in their dissent, said making Christians pay for abortions is not a “substantial” burden on their religious beliefs.

“Let me be absolutely clear: I do not doubt that Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one’s religious beliefs are substantially burdened — no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be — does not make it so,” she wrote.

Catholic Group Challenges Obamacare Mandate on Contraception

The Catholic group Priests For Life has joined with individual plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against Obamacare’s demands that employers provide free contraceptives to employees.

Father Frank Pavone of PFL said that forcing his group to provide no-cost access to contraception that can actually induce abortions violates their religious freedom. He also said that even if the group is given an exemption from the law requiring them to provide the plan, the requirement they facilitate employees finding access to another provider on their own brings unacceptable costs.

The lawsuit is now one of 80 by religious groups across the country regarding the health care law’s infringements on religious rights. The University of Notre Dame and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students filed suits last week.

“I think the Obama administration’s attempts to take religious freedom away from anyone are bound to fail,” Matthew Bowman, the senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told Fox News.

Government Moving Morning-After Abortion Pill Over the Counter

Just days before a court-imposed deadline to lift all age restrictions on the morning-after abortion pill, the government is offering a compromise that will allow the pill over the counter to any woman 15 or older.

Abortion proponents celebrated the news.

“This decision is a step in the right direction for increased access to a product that is a safe and effective method of preventing unintended pregnancies,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “It’s also a decision that moves us closer to these critical availability decisions being based on science, not politics.” Continue reading