U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court upholds exemption allowing employers to skip contraceptive coverage

  • Print.

birth control pills

Image from Shutterstock.com.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Trump administration rules that allow employers to nix contraceptive coverage for employees based on religious or conscience objections.

The plain language of the Affordable Care Act gives federal agencies the authority to create the religious and moral exemptions, the court said in a majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Affordable Care Act gave the Health Resources and Services Administration “sweeping authority” to determine what type of preventive care must be covered by health plans, Thomas said. Under that same authority, the HRSA also has broad discretion to create the religious and moral exemptions, he said.

The HRSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It adopted the new rules, along with the Departments of Labor and the Treasury.

“No party has pressed a constitutional challenge to the breadth of the delegation involved here,” Thomas wrote. “The only question we face today is what the plain language of the statute authorizes. And the plain language of the statute clearly allows the departments to create the preventive care standards as well as the religious and moral exemptions.”

Thomas also said the rules’ adoption complied with the Administrative Procedure Act.

Up to 126,000 women could lose access to free contraceptive coverage under the new rules, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissenting opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the dissent.

Thomas’ opinion was joined by the court’s four conservative justices. Justice Elena Kagan concurred in the judgment in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

The new rules expand exemptions that had previously allowed religious institutions, religious nonprofits and closely held companies to decline to provide contraceptive coverage based on religious objections.

The new rules allow exemptions based on conscience as well as religious objections and expand the employers who can claim them to include publicly traded companies.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania had challenged the broadened exemptions, alleging that they violated the ACA and were adopted in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia had held that the Trump administration lacked authority to adopt the new rules.

“This decision was erroneous,” Thomas said.

Kagan’s concurrence said she agrees that the HRSA had statutory authority to create an exemption for certain employers but not for the reasons cited by the majority. She also said she questions whether the exemption “can survive administrative law’s demand for reasoned decision-making.”

The cases are Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which had early coverage of the ruling.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “SCOTUS adds cases on wayward presidential electors, contraceptive coverage exemptions”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: It’s going to be an unusual May in the Supreme Court”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Religion comes to the Supreme Court”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.