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What Do Children’s Doctors and Nuns Have in Common? They Both Support Women’s Access to Contraception.

Protester holding up "Don't take away my birth control" sign
Protester holding up "Don't take away my birth control" sign
Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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March 7, 2016

The premiere pediatric association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Coalition of American Nuns are among a diverse group of organizations and individuals who recently filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the latest Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement. Nearly 30 briefs were filed in support of the federal government’s argument that women are legally entitled to insurance coverage for contraception coverage with no co-pay, regardless of their employer’s religious beliefs.

The cases being heard by the Supreme Court on March 23, Zubik v. Burwell, were brought by various religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations. They object to contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. But here’s the deal: these employers already don’t have to provide the coverage if they fill out a simple one-page form stating their religious objection. If they opt out of providing the coverage, the employer is taken out of the equation, and the insurance company instead provides the coverage directly to the employees.

But these employers have argued that filling out the form violates their religious beliefs, and they don’t want the government to require the insurance companies to cover contraception, even in a separate plan. Basically, they are trying to use their religious beliefs to block their employees’ insurance coverage for contraception.

The friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of the government explain why the employers’ arguments are just plain wrong, and they highlight the high stakes in this case. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains in its brief that the Supreme Court’s decision could have repercussions far beyond the issue of contraception, including in the context of religious objections to immunizations. The brief says that future objectors could prevent children from obtaining life-saving preventive care, and the “Court can – and should – prevent this threat to pediatric public health.”

In another brief, the American Coalition of American Nuns, together with Catholics for Choice, urge “this Court to recognize that women’s reproductive rights and religious liberty should not be defeated by a religious exemption that leaves contraceptive coverage unavailable to women employees and their families.”

And even those who support the Hobby Lobby decision (which held that closely held for-profit companies could not be required to provide contraception coverage if they had a religious objection) argue that the employers’ argument in this case goes too far. As Professor Douglas Laycock and the Baptist Joint Committee explain, the contraception opt-out does not substantially burden religious beliefs, and more importantly overreaching in this way would “endanger religious liberty, both legally and politically.”

The ACLU also filed a brief, along with other civil rights organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to highlight an important lesson of history: As our society has moved toward greater equality for racial minorities and women, it has increasingly and properly rejected the idea that religion can be used as justification for discrimination in the marketplace. The employers’ attempt to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against their female employees — by taking away a benefit guaranteed to them by law — should likewise be rejected.

Many others have also weighed in. Everyone from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance to the National Women’s Law Center to Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights organization, have filed briefs raising important and diverse topics. If nuns and doctors and respected conservative voices all agree, you know the other side is grasping for straws. With all of these organizations on our side, we are even more hopeful for a victory this summer.