Belmont Abbey College HHS Mandate Suit Dismissed on Standing and Ripeness Grounds

Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the D.C. Circuit dismissed Belmont Abbey’s law suit alleging that the contraception mandate violates RFRA and the First Amendment.  The grounds are lack of standing and ripeness.  The court rejected the government’s claims that Belmont Abbey lacked standing because it qualified for “grandfathered” status.  It also rejected the government’s claim that any injury to Belmont was insufficiently imminent; the court held that the January 2014 deadline was not “too remote.”

But the court accepted the government’s claim that Belmont’s injury was too speculative because of the government’s stated intention to engage in new rulemaking before the expiration of the safe harbor.  It rejected Belmont’s claim that “non-binding promises of future rulemaking” can defeat standing, ruling that the government has done more than promise: it has published its plan to amend and it has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking.  “The government,” said the court, “has done nothing to suggest that it might abandon its efforts to modify the rule—indeed, it has steadily pursued that course—and it is entitled to a presumption that it acts in good faith.”  The court also dismissed the case for lack of ripeness.

There is an interesting feature of the case that appears in the ripeness discussion.  Belmont claimed that the case was ripe because even if the proposed rulemaking goes through, it would not be able to comply without violating its religious beliefs about contraception.  The court said this:

This argument assumes, however, that a particular approach described in the ANPRM—which would require health-insurance issuers to offer group plans without contraceptive coverage to organizations with religious objections while “simultaneously [providing] contraceptive coverage directly to the participants and beneficiaries covered under the organization’s plan with no cost sharing,” see 77 Fed.Reg. 16503—will make it into the final rule. Such an assumption is speculative. The ANPRM merely “presents questions and ideas to help shape discussions” regarding how best to accommodate organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage. Id. The Notice specifically states that it seeks input on the options it proposes “as well as new ideas to inform the next stage of the rulemaking process.” Id. (emphasis added). The rulemaking process is still in its early stages, and the contents of the final amendment have not yet been decided. It would thus be premature to find that the amendment will not adequately address Plaintiff’s concerns.

Belmont tried to resist this holding by claiming that all the government then needs to do to avoid adjudication is to file a notice of proposed rulemaking.  Though the court acknowledged this possibility, and it even said that the “circumstances are slightly less favorable to the agency here” than in another case where this possibility had been raised, it took the government at its word — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the court took the government at its promised future word, whatever that word turns out to be.  Dismissal was without prejudice.

It would not surprise me at all if this were the approach taken by at least some other courts reviewing this litigation.

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