Conservative right

Justice

by Ian Millhiser

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Judge Jerry Smith is a deeply conservative judge. He once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that the man’s lawyer slept through much of his trial. He’s a reliable vote against abortion rights. And he once described feminists as a “gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects.”

East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell is a consolidated batch of cases, handed down on Monday, involving religious employers who object to some or all forms of birth control. These employers are entitled to an accommodation exempting them from federal rules requiring them to offer birth control coverage to their employees. Most of them may invoke this accommodation simply by filling out a form or otherwise informing the federal government of their objection and naming the company that administers their employer health plan. At this point, the government works separately with that company to ensure that the religious employer’s workers receive contraception coverage through a separate health plan.

Several lawsuits are working their way through the federal courts which raise the same legal argument at issue here. In essence, the employers claim that filling out the form that exempts them from having to provide birth control makes them complicit in their employee’s eventual decision to use contraception, and so the government cannot require them to fill out this form. So far, every single federal appeals court to consider this question has sided with the Obama administration and against religious employers who object to this accommodation.

Few judges on any court, however, are as conservative as Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit whose law clerks frequently go on to clerk for the most conservative members of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Smith makes short work of the claim that the fill-out-a-form accommodation burdens religious liberty.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides that the federal government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in limited circumstances. Applying this language, Smith writes in a unanimous opinion for a three-judge panel that “[t]he plaintiffs must show that the challenged regulations substantially burden their religious exercise, but they have not done so.”

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