Obamacare's 'Contraceptive Mandate' Faces New Challenge in Supreme Court

Image via Adelle M. Banks / RNS 

Sixteen months after ruling narrowly that companies with religious objections cannot be forced to pay for employees’ contraceptives, the court faces a chorus of cries from religious charities, schools, and hospitals seeking to get out of the birth control business altogether.

The justices are scheduled to review several petitions Friday asking them to overturn federal appeals court decisions that would force the non-profit groups to opt out of the “contraceptive mandate” included in the Affordable Care Act, rather than receiving the blanket exclusion granted churches and other solely religious institutions.

If they agree to hear one or more of the cases, it will mark the fourth time in five years that President Obama’s prized health care law has come before the high court. And it will put the battle between religious freedom and reproductive rights front-and-center in next year’s presidential race.

Obamacare Marches On, Step by Step

THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT, which has now been the law of the land for five years, is beginning to reshape the national landscape in significant ways.

According to a New York Times analysis of the ACA’s first enrollment period, about 10 million additional people gained insurance in 2014. Many of them fall into demographic groups that have historically struggled to access coverage, such as low-income Americans, people of color, and women. Ultimately, President Obama’s health law is slowly making the country more equal.

There are a few ways the ACA is accomplishing that goal. It has built-in consumer protections to ensure that insurance companies treat people more fairly. It’s created state-level marketplaces to give people new options for purchasing private plans. And it’s expanded the pool of people who are eligible for public coverage through the Medicaid program.

Health policy experts agree that adding more low-income people to the Medicaid rolls represents one of the biggest successes of the ACA so far. According to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group, the states that agreed to expand their Medicaid programs—27 so far, plus the District of Columbia—have seen about a 40 percent drop in their uninsured rates.

“This has been a lifesaver for me. I hadn’t seen a doctor for 11 years,” Marc Sigoloff, a freelance writer in Illinois, told me. Sigloff signed up for Medicaid and subsequently discovered he had a brain tumor.

Carol Fisher Hardaway is now covered through Maryland’s Medicaid program. She told me she has a newfound peace of mind since she doesn’t need to worry about affording the treatment for her multiple sclerosis. Her reduced stress, in fact, is quantifiable. When we talked in October, she had just found out her blood pressure was at a healthy level for the first time in nearly 15 years.

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Following Evangelicals, Traditional Catholics Create a Health Insurance Alternative

David E. Wilson, Michael J. O'Dea, and Louis Brown Jr. introduce Christ Medicus Foundation CURO. Photo via Sally Morrow/RNS.

If you are a Christian who doesn’t smoke, abstains from sex outside your heterosexual marriage and can get your priest to vouch that you go to church at least three times a month, you may qualify for a new Catholic alternative to health insurance.

Taking a cue from evangelicals, a group of traditionalist Catholics on Oct. 2 unveiled a cost-sharing network that they say honors their values and ensures that they are not even indirectly supporting health care services such as abortion that contradict their beliefs.

Christ Medicus Foundation CURO, as the group is called, will be financially integrated with Samaritan Ministries International, which was launched in 1991 by an evangelical home-schooling dad. The SMI network now serves 125,000 people and is exempt from the Affordable Care Act.

“Think about the Gospels and how the Apostles lived,” said CMF CURO director Louis A. Brown Jr. at the program’s Washington, D.C., debut. “They very much shared and cared for each other. And we’re saying: ‘Catholics, you can do that too.’”

Tough To Connect Dots On Ligamfelter's Medicaid Position

As Jim Wallis, a New York Times bestselling author, public theologian, speaker, and acclaimed commentator on ethics and public life, has frequently noted: “Budgets are moral documents.” The moral aspects of Virginia’s budget have been addressed by the various faith communities in the Commonwealth and have been persuasively articulated by the Catholic bishops of Virginia in their statement (April 11, 2014) on expanding Medicaid: “Our advocacy is informed by...teaching that, first, everyone has the right to life, and second, healthcare is a right – not a privilege – that flows from the right to life itself… Virginia should start accepting federal money that can provide nearly 400,000 of its poorest residents the health insurance they currently lack and desperately need.”

What Does the Hobby Lobby Decision Mean?

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., ruling 5-4 that the arts-and-crafts chain does not have to offer insurance for types of birth control that conflict with company owners’ religious beliefs.

Beyond the specifics of the Hobby Lobby case before them, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious non-profits, may claim religious rights.

Does Monday’s decision mean, however, that the religious beliefs of business owners stand paramount? That they are more important than a female employee’s right to choose from the full array of birth control methods she is promised under the Affordable Care Act? Or that a business owner may invoke his religious rights to deny service to a gay couple?

Not necessarily, legal experts say.


SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby in Mansfield, Ohio. by Nicholas Eckhart, Flickr.com

Hobby Lobby in Mansfield, Ohio. by Nicholas Eckhart, Flickr.com

Closely held corporations cannot be compelled to pay for contraception coverage, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in its highly anticipated Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores case. The "contraceptive mandate" in the federal health care law was challenged under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires that the government show that a law doesn't "substantially burden" religious exercise.

According to SCOTUSBlog, the Court ruled that the government "has failed to show that the mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing its interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to birth control."

But the decision is applicable only to the contraceptive mandate, and does not apply to other health care mandates.

From Washington Post :

The justices’ 5-4 decision Monday is the first time that the high court has ruled that profit-seeking businesses can hold religious views under federal law. And it means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under objecting companies’ health insurance plans.

Hobby Lobby is an evangelical family-owned chain, and CEO David Green says that the Affordable Care Act infringed upon the family's religious freedom by compelling them to pay for certain contraceptives the family considers to be abortifacients, such as versions of the morning-after pill and IUDs.

Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan dissented.

Read the decision HERE.

Southern Baptists Pray for 'Favorable' Hobby Lobby Ruling

Photo of the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention. Via Matt and Cyndi Maxson/Flickr.

Southern Baptists prayed Wednesday that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the Green family, the evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby craft chain that challenged the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

“God, we ask for a favorable, favorable ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States for the cause of religious liberty,” prayed the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, incoming president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Historians said the prayer from the podium during the SBC’s annual meeting about a pending court decision was noteworthy, though Southern Baptists have preached and issued statements for years on current events.

“I think it’s unusual for it to happen at a convention event,” said Bill Sumners, director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

Exporting Democracy...

Illustration by Ken Davis

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, the United States has been the proudest example of democracy in the world. Maybe not the best, but definitely the proudest. Oh sure, we’ve hit some rough patches over the decades, mainly in dealing with our native peoples and other ethnic minorities. Also with women, the poor, the falsely accused, the unemployed, and people who aren’t bankers. But let’s just call those growing pains.

For the most part, America has been that shining city on a hill, and by America, of course, I don’t mean Canada or Mexico, or the other countries whose names I forget, most of which don’t have many good hills to shine from anyway.

But I’m not talking about geography, I’m talking about pride. The pride that comes from being number one in democracy, despite being number 55th in infant mortality and 35th in math. Okay, so we don’t test well. But we’re proud anyway. And we’re still number one in Bible science! [High five!]

But lately, because of continued dysfunction on Capitol Hill, people are starting to whisper that democracy in the United States may have lost some of its shine, like we’re “hiding it under a bushel,” as it says in the old Christian campfire song of my youth. (We also sang “With Jesus in My Boat I Can Ride Out the Current Economic Downturn,” and “Children, Go Where I Text Thee.”)

But if America’s “little light” is no longer shining, at least a few other nations are providing good examples of self-government.

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Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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Religious Groups Play Key Role in Obamacare Insurance Sign-up

The National Council of Jewish Women Sacramento Section. Photo courtesy National Council of Jewish Women. Via RNS.

On one Friday earlier this month, more than 11,000 Muslims in mosques across the country heard a sermon about the Affordable Care Act.

Hindu and National Baptist groups, meanwhile, are posting online announcements about the White House’s “Faith and Community ACA Days of Action” this weekend.

Jewish women’s groups have visited college campuses to get students who think they’re “invincible” to sign up for health insurance.

As the national March 31 deadline for health insurance enrollment looms and with President Obama’s encouragement, organizations across a range of faiths are working to sign up uninsured Americans for coverage under Obamacare.