Priests for Life Files Opening Brief in “Contraception Mandate” Appeal

The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed its opening brief last Friday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, asking the court to overturn a lower federal court’s dismissal of its case challenging the Obamacare contraception mandate.  The mandate forces certain non-exempt religious employers to authorize coverage for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization services to the participants and beneficiaries of their healthcare plans.  Consequently, AFLC contends that the mandate is a violation of the constitutional right to religious freedom and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

AFLC is challenging the mandate on behalf of Priests for Life, a nonprofit, Catholic organization; Father Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life; Dr. 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.

In December 19, 2013, Federal Judge Emmett G. Sullivan, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, upheld the government’s enforcement of the contraception mandate as applied against Priests for Life.  Within an hour, AFLC filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and within 24 hours, filed an emergency motion for an injunction, asking the court to halt the mandate pending appeal.

On December 31, just hours before the mandate would have applied in full force to Priests for Life’s health care plan on New Year’s Day, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit granted the injunction.  Absent the injunction, Priests for Life would have been subject to crippling fines of $100 per employee per day.

According to AFLC’s opening brief to the appellate court: “The resolution of these cases, therefore, turns on the answer to a straightforward question: absent interests of the highest order, may the Government force Plaintiffs to take actions that violate their religious beliefs?  Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), the answer to that question is ‘no.’”

Robert Muise, Co-Founder and Senior Counsel of AFLC, commented:

“By issuing the emergency injunction, it is clear that the court understands the grave implications of this case and the importance of protecting the free exercise rights of religious organizations.  It is therefore our duty now to persuade the court that this unconscionable mandate should be permanently enjoined, thereby protecting not only the religious freedom of Priests for Life, but of all Americans.”

David Yerushalmi, Co-Founder and Senior Counsel of AFLC, commented:

“The mandate’s disregard for the religious beliefs of organizations like Priests for Life demonstrates that the Obama administration is at war with our Constitution and our Judeo-Christian religious heritage.  Consequently, it is imperative that the court overturn the lower court’s affirmation of this appalling attack on religious freedom.”

In addition to its appeal in the D.C. Circuit, late last month AFLC filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to grant review of the case pursuant to a special Supreme Court rule that allows review of a case pending in a U.S. appellate court before judgment is entered.  The Court could grant review if “the case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.”

In its petition, AFLC argues that the Court should grant review of the case to decide whether the challenged mandate as applied against non-exempt, nonprofit religious employers violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

AFLC’s 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.