U.S. Supreme Court upholds administration rules expanding religious accommodations from the contraceptive mandate

by | Jul 9, 2020

In Trump v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court again waded into a question about religious accommodations from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate. This time, the issue is more a question of administrative law than religious liberty law: did the Trump administration exceed its authority in issuing rules that greatly expanded eligibility for businesses to opt out, for religious or moral reasons, of the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage?

The Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision held that Congress delegated broad authority to HHS and other agencies to craft regulations and exemptions for the ACA, overturning a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court opinion that had prevented the new regulation from going into effect.

The majority cited the fact that Congress could have, but did not, provide any limits on the administration’s discretion in crafting the rules. The Court also rejected the state’s argument that the administration erred by considering the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The broader exemption for religious or moral objections will now go into effect, and the case returns to the trial court for a trial on the merits. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro has vowed to continue the case.

In addressing why it is appropriate for agencies to consider RFRA when promulgating rules to implement the ACA, Justice Clarence Thomas explained:

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. . . 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.


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.

Responding to the ruling, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman said the following:

BJC has long supported religious liberty accommodations that don’t undercut important government interests. When the case returns to the trial court, we hope the substance of the administrative action is closely examined. RFRA was intended to be a balancing test, not an automatic win for religious objectors.  RFRA doesn’t demand sweeping exemptions that harm other interests, and the courts will have to decide whether RFRA permits such sweeping exemptions.

For more on this case, I highly recommend Episode 12 of the BJC Podcast series Respecting Religion, in which Hollman and BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler discuss the oral arguments, which I also summarized here.

For more on the Supreme Court’s other contraceptive mandate cases, see BJC’s resource page for the 2016 Zubik v. Burwell case and Hollman’s analysis of the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision.