And this is how a constitutional argument is born

February 14th, 2012

Not even a week after President Obama’s compromise position regarding mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives, David Rivkin, along with Ed Whelan write in the WSJ that this rule is unconstitutional, and violates RFRA. Mind you RIvkin and Casey started the entire challenge to PPACA in a similar WSJ article way back in 2009.

Anyway, here’s the argument:

The birth-control coverage mandate violates the First Amendment’s bar against the “free exercise” of religion. But it also violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That statute, passed unanimously by the House of Representatives and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It was enacted in response to a 1990 Supreme Court opinion, Employment Division v. Smith.

That case limited the protections available under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion to those government actions that explicitly targeted religious practices, by subjecting them to difficult-to-satisfy strict judicial scrutiny. Other governmental actions, even if burdening religious activities, were held subject to a more deferential test.

The 1993 law restored the same protections of religious freedom that had been understood to exist pre-Smith. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act states that the federal government may “substantially burden” a person’s “exercise of religion” only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering” that interest.

The law also provides that any later statutory override of its protections must be explicit. But there is nothing in the ObamaCare legislation that explicitly or even implicitly overrides the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The birth-control mandate proposed by Health and Human Services is thus illegal.

In an effort to rally its base in the upcoming November election, the Obama administration seems more interested in punishing religiously based opposition to contraception and abortion than in marginally increasing access to contraception services. It is the combination of the political motive, together with the exclusion of so many employers from the mandate, that has profound constitutional implications. It transforms the mandate into a non-neutral and not generally applicable law that violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

In short, the birth-control mandate violates both statutory law and the Constitution. The fact that the administration promulgated it so flippantly, without seriously engaging on these issues, underscores how little it cares about either.

I subscribe to the ConLawProfs list-serve, and this topic has been absolutely blowing up of late. ConLaw Profs are almost as bad as some internet trolls with the amount of arguments they spew via email. Just take a look at the February postings.

Let’s see how this fares from a popular constitutionalism perspective.

Update: And two days later, Priests for Life files suit against the United States, making just these arguments.

There is no logical or moral distinction between the original contraceptive services mandate and the “revised” regulation announced on February 10, 2011. Employers who offer health insurance do not pay for individual benefits and products as they are provided. Rather, they pay a premium for a policy that gives their employees access to covered benefits and products when they need them. Under the “revised” regulation, all non-exempted health plans must include contraceptive services among their covered benefits. The choice for religious employers is still between paying an insurer to provide their employees with access to a product that violates their convictions (i.e., contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients) or paying a large annual fine to the federal government.