Lambda Legal Urges Supreme Court to Reject Argument that Religious Belief Trumps Equal Access to Health Care

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“Claiming that opting out of a public program makes one complicit in others’ ‘sinful’ participation, and thus burdens one’s own religious practices, inflates the concept of religious freedom beyond all recognition.”
February 18, 2016

(Washington D. C.) —Yesterday, Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell and six related cases urging the Court to reject arguments made by religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations who argue that it burdens their religious beliefs simply to notify the federal government that they are opting out of providing their employees insurance coverage for contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“The argument the employers make in these cases is almost breathtaking in its overreach,” Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer said. “Once a business or social service agency has opted out of providing contraception coverage, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not permit that organization to continue to object to their employees’ independent conduct. Claiming that opting out of a public program makes one complicit in others’ ‘sinful’ participation, and thus burdens one’s own religious practices, inflates the concept of religious freedom beyond all recognition.”

The rule challenged in these seven cases accommodates certain religiously affiliated social services, medical, educational, and other institutions that employ people of diverse faiths and serve the general public—often with public funding—by allowing them to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of their objection to providing insurance for contraception either by using a simple form or through an alternate process. Doing so relieves the employer of all responsibility for that coverage, which instead is provided by the health insurance issuer or a third party administrator and then reimbursed by the government. Of the seven federal appeals courts that have heard these cases, all but one have rejected the argument that having to opt out of a program so others’ needs can be met through separate arrangements is a substantial burden on one’s own exercise of religion.

“The accommodation these organizations challenge makes explicit that they are not providing the contraceptive coverage,” Pizer added. “There is important precedent going back generations that limits the power of employers to impose their religious beliefs on workers. These cases have high stakes for LGBT people and people living with HIV because religious arguments so often are used to block their basic civil rights. The cases are an attack on safeguards that don’t just protect access to birth control, but also protect everyone whose family or personal life may vary from their employer’s religious beliefs.”

The ACA requires coverage of FDA-approved birth control methods within health insurance plans as a core aspect of gender equality. Contraceptives are essential elements of preventive health care for many women and for some transgender men not just for pregnancy prevention but also to reduce risk of certain cancers, to alleviate pelvic pain, and to prevent or manage other health conditions. 

Pizer said, “For Lambda Legal, expanding access to nondiscriminatory, quality health care and reproductive freedom are core mission goals. From the beginning of the LGBT civil rights movement, the community has had to confront religion-based efforts to condemn, control, or restrict the reproductive and sexual autonomy of LGBT people, same-sex couples, and people living with HIV. The petitioners in these cases propose a dramatic change in law that would increase barriers that already harm our community and, in the bigger picture, threaten whether individual religious and personal freedom can continue to coexist for anyone when large, religiously affiliated service providers disagree.”

The Human Rights Campaign and the Transgender Law Center joined Lambda Legal as signatories in the amicus brief.

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in all seven cases on March 23, 2016.

The brief was written by Lambda Legal lawyers Jennifer C. Pizer, Camilla B. Taylor, Jon W. Davidson, Kyle Palazzolo, Hayley Gorenberg, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, and Aisha N. Davis.

Read the brief:


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