The new rules would let employers refuse to cover birth control by citing religious or moral objections.
A federal judge in California blocked a Trump administration rule on contraception just hours before it was to go into effect Monday. It would have allowed virtually any employer to refuse to cover workers’ birth control by citing religious or moral objections.
U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr. ruled the policy would cause harm to the Democratic states suing over the rules, and he issued an order staying the rules from going into effect while the lawsuit proceeds. His temporary block is limited to just the 13 states plus the District of Columbia involved in the lawsuit. However it’s possible that a court in Pennsylvania, considering a similar request for an injunction, could issue a broader national order.
The new rules mark the Trump administration’s second attempt to narrow the Obamacare-related requirement that employers must provide FDA-approved contraception in the employee health plan at no cost. The first attempt was halted in 2017 after courts found the administration tried to make the change without giving the public the opportunity to weigh in. Houses of worship and closely-held private companies with religious objections are currently exempted from the birth control coverage mandate; the Trump administration is seeking to make the exemptions much broader.
The states in the California case argued that people will suffer irreparable harm. HHS estimated that between 6,400 and 127,000 women will lose coverage of contraceptives under the rule, but reproductive rights advocates argued the change could affect millions of people.
The birth control mandate had been controversial from the outset, under the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s effort to narrow it reignited a fierce battle, and quickly prompted new legal challenges.
The states sought nationwide injunctions, both on administrative grounds and by arguing that the rule would undercut the health care law and unconstitutionally discriminate against women.
In a similar case, Democratic attorneys general challenged the revised version of the rule on Thursday at the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The court has not yet ruled on that request for an injunction but may do so by Monday.
The Trump administration criticized the California injunction, arguing that the rules legally uphold religious freedom.
“No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our health care system,” Caitlin Oakley, spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, said in a statement Sunday night. “The final rules affirm the Trump Administration’s commitment to upholding the freedoms afforded all Americans under our Constitution.”
The administration wants the exemptions for businesses and employers to be broader than those delineated by the Supreme Court in the 2014 Hobby Lobby v Burwell case.
Gilliam, the California judge, heard arguments Friday in Oakland on the states’ request to block the rules. The states, most of which have Democratic governors, receiving an injunction Sunday evening include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington state, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“The law couldn’t be more clear — employers have no business interfering in women’s healthcare decisions,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Sunday evening. “Today’s court ruling stops another attempt by the Trump Administration to trample on women’s access to basic reproductive care.”
Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director, called it “a good day when a court stops this administration from sanctioning discrimination under the guise of religion or morality.” Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, said, “It’s time that politicians recognize birth control as health care and that women, in consultation with doctors, decide what contraception we receive — not our employers.”
But Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, a legal group representing a Catholic religious order of nuns intervening in the case, said today’s ruling threatens “the rights of religious women like the Little Sisters of the Poor.”
“Now the Little Sisters have no choice but to keep fighting this unnecessary fight so they can protect their right to focus on caring for the poor. We are confident this decision will be overturned,” Rienzi said in a statement. The order of nuns have been litigating the issue since 2013.