Stop frivolous lawsuits

Women’s rights to contraception coverage must remain.

Bronwyn Miller


In light of a longstanding legal battle with employers making religious objections, the Obama administration recently announced new rules for the contraception coverage requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in order to clarify which employers are exempt from providing no-cost contraception for their employees.

Using the Internal Revenue Code’s definition of “religious employer,” the government exempts churches and other religious organizations from providing contraceptive coverage to their workers. Organizations that can self-certify that they are nonprofits and have religion as a core part of their mission are now allowed an accommodation so that they would not have to contract, arrange or pay for contraception coverage. Rather, their insurance companies would need to give plan participants the option to receive separate, individual health insurance policies, through which free birth control would be provided. The insurers would be paying — not the nonprofit nor the employee. Everybody wins, right? 

Some public entities are still expressing disdain for the government’s plan, claiming they are being forced to assist with access to birth control. Worse, the owners of many secular, for-profit businesses engaged in non-religious activities — like Minnesota-based American Manufacturing Company — are suing the federal government for exemption, too. Such lawsuits claim that because the owners of the companies have deep religious beliefs, the contraception mandate violates religious freedom and requires people to act against their convictions. 

We are talking about voluntary engagement in for-profit enterprise with a non-religious mission to make money in the commercial sphere. Where do we draw the line? Can a Jehovah’s Witness employer who does not believe in blood transfusions rightfully deny insurance coverage for a blood transfusion to an employee? Should those who believe in the Bible’s assertion that one must honor God with his or her body be exempt from providing care for smoking-induced lung cancer treatment or ailments caused by overeating?

Curiously, it is only the contraception mandate with which business owners are publicly refusing to comply. The only issue being taken up in widespread lawsuits against the federal government is that which relates to a woman’s right to control her own body and reproduction. In a society consistently guilty of misogyny, this is hardly surprising — but that does not in any way condone the sexism illustrated through these refusals to provide basic elements of a female’s health care.

There is an important legal differentiation between a corporate entity and its owner, meaning the requirement to cover contraceptives is not required of the owner personally but of the company’s health care plan. While people have freedom of religion, private companies with no stated religious mission do not have distinct religious interests or rights. 

In a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires.” It is not, he said, “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws.” This rule has been widely cited ever since, serving as the basis for rulings stating, for example, that Christian landlords cannot refuse to rent to unmarried couples even if they believe this type of cohabitation is a sin. Similarly, courts must now refuse the feeble-grounded exemption requests of the for-profit companies suing the federal government and ensure every woman has her legal right to contraception.