Priests for Life v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

“The religious freedom of believers of all denominations is under attack. Our family therefore joins in prayerful support of the Priests for Life case against the HHS mandate. As our Hobby Lobby case represents the concerns of businesses, so the Priests for Life case represents the concerns of the religious non-profit groups. Together, we stand against this injustice, and for the law of God.”

David Green, CEO
Hobby Lobby Corporate

When President Obama promulgated the Obamacare “contraception mandate,” which requires employers to provide insurance plans that include, inter alia, coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, he openly declared war on religious liberty. Indeed, he and other secular liberals view pregnancy as a disease to be “prevented” by contraception or “cured” by abortion.  Thus, by forcing religious organizations to participate in the culture of death, the Obama administration is seeking to achieve a political victory for its pro-abortion agenda. However, by doing so, the Obama adminstration has violated a core freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

As a result of the Obama administration’s actions, on August 19, 2013, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the recently announced regulations enforcing the Obamacare contraceptive services mandate against religious organizations.  The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of Priests for Life, an international Catholic organization; Father Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life; Alveda King, the niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Pastoral Associate and Director of African-American Outreach for Priests for Life; and Janet Morana, the Executive Director of Priests for Life.  The lawsuit alleges that the new regulations violate the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by forcing religious organization to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Background Leading Up to Lawsuit

On June 28 2013, the Obama administration announced that it had issued its long-awaited, final rules on contraceptive coverage and religious organizations.  These rules were published in the Federal Register on July 2 and became effective on August 1.  Pursuant to these new regulations, religious organizations, including Priests for Life, will still be forced to provide their employees with contraception, sterilization, abortifacients, and related education and counseling as part of their health care plans.  This mandate, which will allegedly require Priests for Life’s health insurance carrier to bear the cost of the contraceptive coverage, will take effect on January 1, 2014.

Earlier, on February 10, 2012, President Obama announced that his administration intended to propose and finalize new regulations that would allegedly “accommodate” religious objections to the contraceptive services mandate.  However, as noted above, his administration refused to provide in these new regulations a broad religious employer exemption that would completely exempt organizations such as Priests for Life from the mandate.

According to the administration, including such a broad exemption “would lead to more employees having to pay out of pocket for contraceptive services, thus making it less likely that they would use contraceptives, which would undermine the benefits [of requiring the coverage]. . . .  Including these employers within the scope of the exemption would subject their employees to the religious views of the employer, limiting access to contraceptives, thereby inhibiting the use of contraceptive services and the benefits of preventive care.”

Pursuant to the new regulations and its so-called “accommodation” for certain “eligible” religious organizations, the organization’s health insurance carrier will be required to provide the contraceptive services directly to the organization’s health care plan participants without shifting any of the costs to the religious employer.  Consequently, because the religious employer purchased a health care plan for its employees—and for no other reason—the employees will have access to and coverage for the contraceptive services through the issuer of the plan.

As alleged in the lawsuit, under the new regulations, Priests for Life will still be forced to purchase a health care plan that provides contraceptive coverage directly to its plan participants and their beneficiaries, which is unacceptable to Priests for Life.  Priests for Life’s sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit it from promoting or supporting, directly or indirectly, contraception, sterilization, abortifacients, abortion, and related education and counseling, including providing a health care plan that provides access to or the means of acquiring such immoral services.

Consequently, Priests for Life objects to being forced by the government to purchase a health care plan that provides its employees with access to “medical” services which are prohibited by its religious convictions.  This is true whether the immoral services are paid for directly, indirectly, or even not at all by Priests for Life.  Contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients are immoral regardless of their cost.

The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius; the U.S. Department of the Treasury and its Secretary, Jacob Lew; and the U.S. Department of Labor and its Secretary, Thomas Perez.  Each department has a role in enforcing the challenged mandate.

Following oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on May 8, 2014, a prayer rally was held outside of the courthouse.  See news coverage below and read more here.



CASE UPDATE: Motion for preliminary injunction was filed on Sepember 19, 2013.

CASE UPDATE: On October 1, 2013, AFLC filed Priests for Life’s motion for summary judgment per the court’s order.  On September 25th, the judge assigned to the case held a conference with the attorneys for both sides.  The parties agreed that there are no material factual disputes regarding the implementation of the contraceptive services mandate and its impact upon religious organization such as Priests for Life.  Consequently, the only questions remaining are whether the mandate violates the U.S. Constitution and whether it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As a result, the judge agreed to consolidate Priests for Life’s pending motion for a preliminary injunction with a ruling on the merits.

Because the mandate will apply in full force against Priests for Life as of January 1, 2014, the court expedited the briefing schedule.  Additionally, as part of that briefing schedule, the judge directed Priests for Life to file a motion for summary judgment (a formal request that the court rule in its favor on all claims as a matter of law), incorporating the legal arguments set forth in the previously filed motion for preliminary injunction.

In short, the judge seems ready and willing to issue a final order on the legality of the contraceptive services mandate before the end of the year.

CASE UPDATE (September 19, 2013): Motion for preliminary injunction filed

CASE UPDATE (October 31, 2013): Federal Judge denies Dept. of Justice’s motion for a stay after AFLC filed an opposition.

CASE UPDATE (October 1, 2013): Motion for summary judgment filed

CASE UPDATE (October 22, 2013): AFLC filed an opposition to the ACLU’s motion to request that the court grant it permission to file an amicus brief in support of the contraception mandate.

CASE UPDATE (October 31, 2013): AFLC filed its combined reply in support of its motion and opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss/for summary judgment. The government will have until November 12th to file their final reply and the briefing is complete.

CASE UPDATE (November 12, 2013): AFLC filed a supplemental brief that was directed by the judge in response to the recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruling in the Gilardi case, a for-profit case challenging the contraception mandate. AFLC’s brief analyzed the Court’s ruling in Gilardi, which was favorable to Priests for Life’s position.

CASE UPDATE (November 25, 2013): AFLC filed a supplemental authority brief, bringing the court’s attention to the recent decision in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, which is favorable to AFLC’s motion for summary judgment.

CASE UPDATE (December 16, 2013): AFLC filed a supplemental memorandum that reaffirms AFLC’s argument that its clients, pursuant to their sincerely held religious beliefs, will not and cannot endorse, facilitate, support, or enable in any way the government’s immoral objective of increasing access to and utilization of contraceptive services.

CASE UPDATE (December 16, 2013): AFLC filed a supplemental authority letter, bringing to the court’s attention the recent victory in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York case, which is the first ruling on the merits in the challenge of the new Obamacare regulations on non-exempt religious organization.

CASE UPDATE (December 20, 2013): After the court granted the Obama administration’s motion to dismiss, AFLC filed an emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal that would enjoin the enforcement of the contraceptive mandate against Priests for Life.

CASE UPDATE (December 31, 2013): The court granted AFLC’s emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal that would enjoin the enforcement of the contraceptive mandate against Priests for Life.

CASE UPDATE (January 23, 2014): AFLC filed its petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.

CASE UPDATE (February 28, 2014): AFLC filed its opening brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

CASE UPDATE (March 7, 2014): AFLC filed its reply brief in support of its petition for writ of certiorari.

CASE UPDATE (March 14,2014): The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has scheduled oral argument for Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 9:30 a.m. ET.

CASE UPDATE (March 25, 2014): The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rescheduled oral argument (and changed the panel of judges) for Thursday, May 8, 2014, at 9:30 a.m. ET.

CASE UPDATE (April 11, 2014): AFLC filed its reply brief in the D.C. Circuit in its case challenging the HHS mandate on behalf of Priests for Life.  This completes the briefing.

CASE UPDATE (May 8, 2014): Senior Counsel Robert Muise presented oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. More information.

CASE UPDATE (June 16, 2014): AFLC filed a supplemental authority letter along with the law firm Jones Day, which responded to the Sixth Circuit’s recent decision in Michigan Catholic Conference v. Burwell.

CASE UPDATE (June 25, 2014): AFLC filed two supplemental authority letters. The first letter was jointly filed regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. The second letter was jointly filed regarding a favorable decision in the 11th Circuit (EWTN v. Burwell).

CASE UPDATE (September 16, 2014): AFLC filed a court-ordered supplemental brief regarding the impact of the Hobby Lobby decision.

CASE UPDATE (December 26, 2014): AFLC filed a petition for rehearing en banc, asking the full D.C. Circuit to rehear the case.

CASE UPDATE (May 20, 2015): The D.C. Circuit denied AFLC’s petition for rehearing en banc, with three judges dissenting.

CASE UPDATE (June 9, 2015): AFLC filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to review the case and reverse the D.C. Circuit.

CASE UPDATE (June 10, 2015): The DC Circuit granted our motion to stay the mandate while the case is on review in the U.S. Supreme Court.  This is important because it means that the injunction issued by the D.C. Circuit back in 2013 remains in effect throughout this review process.

CASE UPDATE (August 25, 2015): We filed our reply in support of our petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.

CASE UPDATE (November 6, 2015): The Supreme Court granted review!

CASE UPDATE (January 4, 2016): We filed our opening brief in the Supreme Court.

CASE UPDATE (April 12, 2016): We filed our supplemental brief in the Supreme Court per the Court’s order.

CASE UPDATE (May 16, 2016): SCOTUS issued per curiam opinion, vacating decisions below and remanding for further proceedings.

CASE UPDATE: In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the government entered into a settlement agreement with Priests for Life, whereby it agreed not to enforce the HHS Mandate against the religious organization.  The government paid AFLC  $139, 626 in attorneys’ fees.  Case closed.