Little Sisters Win Again

Jul 8, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Trump administration’s exemption of religious employers from the Affordable Care Act (ACA or known as ObamaCare) requirement to provide insurance coverage for contraception and other abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their health insurance plans. The case is titled, Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania. 

The opinion is based solely upon the language of ACA that provides broad authority for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to promulgate rules defining what is to be included in the law’s requirement of “preventative care and screenings” in health insurance plans. Following the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that held the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected the for-profit employer from having to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and subsequent directives from the Court, HHS under the Trump Administration provided exemptions for religious and moral reasons. 

Several states sued the Trump Administration over the new rule exempting Little Sisters. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas said, “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.”

The Court continued, “In light of our holding that the ACA provided a basis for both exemptions, we need not reach these arguments. . . . Particularly in the context of these cases, it was appropriate for the Departments to consider RFRA. As we have explained, RFRA “provide[s] very broad protection for religious liberty.” [quoting Hobby Lobby]. 

While not deciding RFRA as it relates to faith-based employers, the Court went on to write, “It is clear from the face of the statute that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating RFRA. The ACA does not explicitly exempt RFRA, and the regulations implementing the contraceptive mandate qualify as “Federal law” or “the implementation of [Federal] law.” §2000bb–3(a); cf. Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U. S. 281, 297–298 (1979). Additionally, we expressly stated in Hobby Lobby that the contraceptive mandate violated RFRA as applied to entities with complicity-based objections. Thus, the potential for conflict between the contraceptive mandate and RFRA is well settled. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that RFRA would feature prominently in the Departments’ discussion of exemptions that would not pose similar legal problems.” 

The Court continued, “Moreover, our decisions all but instructed the Departments to consider RFRA going forward. For instance, though we held that the mandate violated RFRA in Hobby Lobby, we left it to the Federal Government to develop and implement a solution. At the same time, we made it abundantly clear that, under RFRA, the Departments must accept the sincerely held complicity-based objections of religious entities. That is, they could not ‘tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed …’ It is hard to see how the Departments could promulgate rules consistent with these decisions if they did not overtly consider these entities’ rights under RFRA.” 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Today is a great victory for religious employers. Thanks to the Trump administration for recognizing the need to protect religious employers from mandates that conflict with religious and moral beliefs about the sanctity of human life. The Obama administration put the federal government on a collision course with the right of religious employers to exist and carry on their mission consistent with their faith. While the Court did not rule on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the opinion made clear that it provides broad protection to religious employers from government mandates that collide with their religious and moral beliefs.” 



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