NEW YORK—A federal judge in Brooklyn issued the first permanent injunction against Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate on Friday, in a ruling published on Monday. Judge Brian Cogan ruled that the mandate violated the religious freedom of four Catholic schools and health systems in New York City.
This is one of the first rulings involving religious nonprofit organizations since the federal government issued its final contraceptive regulations for those groups. Cogan’s ruling says that the so-called accommodation for religious nonprofit groups is constitutionally insufficient.
The final mandate regulations, issued this past summer, said that religious nonprofits’ insurance policies must include coverage for contraceptives. But the regulations added that insurance companies must provide contraceptives to nonprofits’ employees without the nonprofit groups paying for it. Nonprofits would have to self-certify that they objected to contraceptive coverage, and then authorize the insurance company to cover contraceptives. The Catholic groups said that set-up was a shell game that did not relieve their consciences.
“Plaintiffs’ religious objection is not only to the use of contraceptives, but also to being required to actively participate in a scheme to provide such services,” Cogan wrote. “The government feels that the accommodation sufficiently insulates plaintiffs from the objectionable services, but plaintiffs disagree. Again, it is not the court’s role to say that plaintiffs are wrong about their religious beliefs.”
Cogan said the government had other options available that wouldn’t impose on the groups’ religious freedom: The government could provide contraceptives to employees itself, for one. He cited the many exemptions made for other interest groups in the law. Mandating free contraceptive coverage is a legitimate goal of the federal government, he said, but the government must mandate in the least restrictive way on the religious freedom of groups.
“The government has failed to show that the mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest,” he wrote. “The countervailing public interests cited by the government—in uniform enforcement of the mandate and in allowing plaintiffs’ employees to enjoy its benefits—do not outweigh the public interest in protecting plaintiffs’ religious liberty.”
The plaintiffs in the suit included Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island, ArchCare (Catholic Health Care System and its affiliates, the Continuing Care Community of the Archdiocese of New York), and Catholic Health Services of Long Island. The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Rockville Centre had also joined in the suit, but Cogan dismissed their claims because in the course of the case, the federal government decided that those two entities were church organizations and therefore entirely exempt from the mandate.
Other federal judges and appeals courts have issued preliminary injunctions against the mandate; those injunctions exist temporarily while the courts decide the merits of the cases. The permanent injunction is a final ruling on the merits. If the federal government appeals the ruling, the case would go to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hasn’t ruled on the mandate in any other cases yet.
Meanwhile, in March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the mandate as applied to for-profit companies with religious owners.