In my last post, I argued that the requirement that religiously affiliated organizations include contraception in their health insurance plans does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. That’s not such a hard argument to make given the Employment Division v. Smith rule that neutral laws of general applicability are constitutional, no matter what kind of burden they may create for religious practices.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on the other hand, is easier to violate. RFRA was passed in reaction to Employment Division v. Smith. Congress wanted to restore the more demanding (at least on paper) pre-Smith test for religious liberty claims. The Supreme Court struck down RFRA as applied to the states but not as applied to the federal government. Under RFRA, a federal law cannot impose a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion unless it passes strict scrutiny.
Saving the question of whether the contraception mandate imposes a substantial burden for another post, would it pass strict scrutiny? Does the contraception mandate advance a compelling state interest in a narrowly tailored way? It is not hard to come up with compelling reasons why women who do not want to become pregnant should have access to contraception. Women’s ability to control their reproduction is essential to their wellbeing, their bodily integrity, and their ability to participate as equals in the social, economic, and political life of the nation. In fact, the failure to cover contraception may well amount to sex discrimination if a health insurance plan covers all basic preventive care except for pregnancy-related preventive care like contraception. (While pregnancy discrimination is not considered sex discrimination for equal protection purposes thanks to Geduldig v. Aiello, it is sex discrimination for Title VII purposes thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.) Promoting women’s health, liberty, equality, and equal access to health care are all compelling state interests.
Nevertheless, at least one court has concluded that the contraception mandate was not motivated by a compelling interest because it contains too many exceptions, such as the ones for grandfathered plans and small employers. So, while the court acknowledged that “the promotion of public health” is generally a compelling state interest, it held that “any such argument is undermined by the existence of numerous exceptions to the preventive care coverage mandate. . . . A law cannot be regarded as protecting an interest of the highest order when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly vital interest unprohibited.” I disagree. The number of exceptions might matter if there were some question about whether the state’s interest really was compelling or not. If we are not sure about the importance of uniform appearance among police officers, numerous exceptions to grooming requirements might lead to the conclusion that it is not as important as the state claims. However, such exceptions should not matter when the state’s goals have long been recognized as compelling — and surely we are past the point of debating whether promoting women’s liberty and equality and preventing sex discrimination are compelling state interests.
Perhaps, then, it could be argued that the law is not narrowly tailored. How strict the tailoring must be under RFRA in not clear. If RFRA is meant to reinstate the pre-Smith test as practiced, then it is not very demanding, since the Supreme Court rarely found that laws failed strict scrutiny in Free Exercise Clause challenges. In any case, one argument that should be rejected is that the law is not sufficiently tailored because the government could provide contraception instead. But that can’t be right. Imagine a bookstore that refused admittance to Hispanics. Or imagine an employer whose insurance covered cancer screenings for white employees but not Asian ones. Now imagine the bookstore or employer arguing that a law banning race discrimination in places of public accommodation or in the provision of employment benefits fails strict scrutiny because the state could sell the books or provide the benefits instead. Such a claim is a distortion of strict scrutiny and should fail.