The health care reform mandate to provide no-cost coverage for women's contraception and sterilization (see our prior coverage here) has proven controversial. Now a federal court in Colorado has issued an order preventing the government from enforcing the requirement against a private employer that objects to the requirements on religious grounds. Although several organizations across the country have sued to bar the enforcement of this requirement, the Colorado case is the first in which a court has ruled that the requirement may not be enforced. Other courts have dismissed challenges to this requirement.
The substantive and procedural legal background to this case is fairly complex. But boiled down, the court concluded the employer stood a good chance of proving that the contraception mandate would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - a federal statute that is intended to ensure there is no substantial burden placed by the government on the free exercise of religion. Based on the likelihood of harm to the employer, the court temporarily barred the government from enforcing the requirement.
There are several unique aspects to this case.
- The employer is a private employer, not a church or religious-oriented non-profit organization. But its owners have taken very specific steps to provide that the business will be operated in a manner consistent with the owners' religious beliefs, which the court found persuasive in evaluating whether the contraception requirement might burden the free exercise of religion.
- The employer's group health plan is not a grandfathered plan, and the employer does not qualify for either the religious-employer exemption from the contraception requirement or the one-year nonenforcement safe harbor applicable to certain non-profit organizations. So absent the court's order, the employer would be required to offer no-cost coverage for contraception under its plan.
- The order barring enforcement is temporary. There will be further legal proceedings and the court will be giving further consideration to some novel legal issues, such as whether a corporation or other entity may hold and exercise religious beliefs.
- The order is expressly limited to the employer that requested it. It does not prevent enforcement of the contraception requirement against any other person or entity. So while it may provide a roadmap for similar challenges by other employers, it does not broadly upend the law.
Given these unique facts, it remains to be seen whether this case will have any broader impact. But it certainly provides a further twist in the sometimes bumpy road to implementation of the preventive-care mandate.