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Free Exercise and Employee Health Care Under the ACA

While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been in the news for a number of reasons lately, one story that largely fell by the wayside involved a Pennsylvania cabinet company that took issue with the ACA’s requirement that health plans provide coverage for certain types of oral contraceptives. A federal appellate decision in the case has contributed to a growing split among the appeals courts that is likely to ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

In Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, a closely held corporation owned by a Pennsylvania Mennonite family asserted that the ACA’s requirements that employee health plans cover certain contraceptives infringed on the corporation’s right to free religious exercise under the First Amendment as well as its rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). After losing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also denied Conestoga’s claim.

While acknowledging that the recent Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court had demonstrated that corporate entities can assert free speech rights, the Third Circuit found it inconceivable that a secular corporation could engage in religious exercise. Instead, the court held, such religious ideals were purely personal.

This is not the first time the issue has come before a federal court:

  • In 2012, a group of Catholic dioceses and organizations sued the Department of Health and Human Services over the ACA’s contraception requirements. The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was ultimately dismissed. Other such cases also were dismissed.
  • In 2013, the Sixth Circuit upheld a district court’s denial of a corporation’s request for an injunction against enforcement of the same provision of the ACA.
  • In 2013, the Tenth Circuit found that secular corporations could challenge the contraception provisions of the ACA on free exercise grounds.

The split among the circuits makes this issue a likely candidate for Supreme Court consideration. Employee rights attorneys will closely watch to see how this controversy could affect employee benefits.

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Neil H. Deutsch
Senior Partner

About Neil H. Deutsch has been practicing law for over 35 years and is known as a skilled negotiator in employment and discrimination law. He believes in a bottom-line approach of risk analysis and cost effectiveness for his clients. "Case evaluation is something we take seriously," says Mr. Deutsch who seeks top net dollar for…

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Bruce L. Atkins
Senior Partner

About Bruce L. Atkins is regarded as one of New Jersey’s premier practitioners of employment and civil litigation. He has been selected to the New Jersey Super Lawyers prestigious list every year since 2005.  This honor, bestowed upon a recipient by the votes of his peers, is a powerful nod to the skill Mr. Atkins…

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Adam J. Kleinfeldt
Partner

About Adam J. Kleinfeldt joined Deutsch Atkins, P.C. in March of 2015.  He primarily represents individuals in employment litigations such as discrimination, retaliation, and whistle blowing matters.  He has extensive experience in all phases of the litigation process. Adam has obtained significant results for some of his clients, including a $525,000 jury verdict in a…

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Diane Englander Peyser
Attorney

About Diane Englander Peyser joined Deutsch Atkins, PC in September 2018 where she represents employees in wrongful termination, retaliation, harassment, and discrimination matters. Prior to joining Deutsch Atkins, PC, Diane represented clients in all aspects of employment law on behalf of employees involving unemployment appeals, claims of sexual harassment, LGBT discrimination, disability discrimination, FMLA, New…

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Debra M. McGarvey
Attorney

About Debra M. McGarvey joined Deutsch Atkins, P.C. in December 2019. She has extensive experience defending employees and employers in state and federal court in employment litigation matters. She has represented clients on various issues arising out of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), the Americans…

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