Eighth Circuit: Contraceptive Mandate Void Against Religious Objectors

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in two cases last week that the federal government may not enforce certain Affordable Care Act (ACA)regulations against religious objectors. Sharpe Holdings, Inc. v. HHS (8th Cir. 2015); Dordt Coll. v. Burwell (8th Cir. 2015). The court said forcing two Missouri organizations to offer contraceptive coverage to employees—even via a “work-around”—would violate the groups’ religious freedoms.

The Affordable Care Act requires women covered by group health plans to be able to obtain contraceptives at no additional cost. Originally, the ACA exempted only religious organizations such as churches from this requirement. But in response to protests, the federal government eventually crafted a procedure it hoped would prove satisfactory to all parties. The work-around allows religious nonprofits and some for-profit companies to notify the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about their religious objections and receive permission to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. HHS then alerts the employer’s health insurance company, which provides separate payments to insureds for contraceptive services.

The Eighth Circuit broke ranks with the other circuits, accepting the argument that merely informing HHS of their objections was sufficient to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

A split of authority among federal circuits makes it highly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will review the issue.