District Court Grants Preliminary Injunction in Contraception Mandate Challenge

Another victory (though perhaps only temporary) for plaintiffs challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate under RFRA. A federal district court in Michigan has granted a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the mandate against a for-profit corporation whose owners object to complying with the mandate because of their Catholic beliefs. According to Judge Robert Cleland, neither the corporation nor the government had made a strong showing of success on the merits: the mandate might be the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest, but the question was close. Given the religious freedom concerns here, however, the balance tipped in favor of granting the preliminary injunction, in order to avoid irreparable harm to plaintiffs while the case continued. The court dismissed a challenge to the mandate brought by a non-profit Catholic organization on the ground that the organization fit within a temporary regulatory safe-harbor and had not yet suffered a cognizable injury. The case is Legatus v. Sebelius, 2012 WL 5359630 (E.D. Michigan, Oct. 31, 2012).

Massachusetts High Court to Hear Challenge to Pledge of Allegiance

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a state law requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Plaintiffs, a Secular Humanist family with children in Massachusetts public schools, argue that the phrase, “under God,” in the Pledge violates a state constitutional ban on religious discrimination. Eight years ago, in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, the US Supreme Court dismissed a federal constitutional challenge to the Pledge on the ground that the plaintiff in that case lacked standing. It doesn’t look like standing will be a problem in the Massachusetts case, however, so the Massachusetts court may well reach the merits. Apparently, there is little case law under the state constitution that addresses the question. Can Newdow  provide any guidance? Newdow is noteworthy mostly for Justice O’Connor’s concurrence, arguing that the phrase “under God” would be permissible under the Establishment Clause as a sort of ceremonial deism. It will be interesting to see whether the Massachusetts court adopts similar reasoning under the state constitution. The case is Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.