Another defeat for the government. The Becket Fund is reporting that the Eighth Circuit, in two decisions released last week, affirmed a lower court’s grant of a preliminary injunction in favor of Dordt College and Cornerstone University, both religious nonprofits, among other entities, against enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, as well as the so-called “accommodation,” which permits religious entities not to comply with the direct provision of contraceptive coverage by signing a certification (the “Form 700”) that is then sent to a third-party administrator. That administrator then notifies the objecting party’s insurer, who then is supposed to arrange for coverage. This accommodation has its own problems, most clearly that many religious organizations do not feel comfortable appointing a third-party to do something which they themselves find objectionable.
The decision found that “by coercing Dordt and Cornerstone to participate in the contraceptive mandate and accommodation process under threat of severe monetary penalty, the government has substantially burdened Dordt and Cornerstone’s exercise of religion.” Because of that substantial burden, the government was required to show that the ACA mandate and accommodation served compelling government interests and did so through means least restrictive of the constitutional protection of free exercise. Relying on a similar, recent case, the appellate panel determined that the government had not used the least restrictive means, but did not rule on whether the government was furthering a compelling interest.
Significantly, the Court did not question Dordt and Cornerstone’s “sincere religious beliefs” that opposed them to the mandate and accommodation. This is in contrast to the case we looked at last week, where the dissenters argued that was precisely what the panel did in rejecting similar claims.
A number of religious non-profit petitions are now waiting Supreme Court review, though it is unclear whether the differing Circuit opinions are going to move the Supreme Court to take a case so soon after Hobby Lobby. However, the fault lines of the decisions are clear. It seems difficult to believe that the government would prevail on whether the ACA mandate and accommodation is the least restrictive means of achieving its interests, whatever the Court’s view of what those interests are. It is worth noting that those interests are not without challenge, including by federal appellate courts, as in a 2013 opinion by Judge Janice Brown, although they were assumed for the purposes of argument only in Hobby Lobby. Yet the stubborn, unknown fact on which the decision may hinge is not strictly a legal one: can the Justices understand that the accommodation itself can burden religious freedom, even if the government does not think it does? That in turn will require them to decide whether the challengers’ beliefs are sincere and given their place in the “scribal” hierarchy, that conclusion may be too much to expect.