Second Federal Judge Blocks Trump's Birth Control Rules Nationwide
By Jeremy Roebuck
A federal judge in Philadelphia on Monday barred the Trump administration from implementing new rules that would let almost any employer deny female employees coverage for birth control by citing religious or moral objections.
U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone found that the new regulations would make it more difficult for thousands of women to obtain no-cost contraception currently mandated under the Affordable Care Act and inflict an undue burden on states who would step in to pick up the tab.
In a 65-page opinion issued the same day the rules took effect, the judge issued a temporary injunction requested by attorneys general in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Beetlestone's ruling follows a similar order issued late Sunday by a federal judge in California. But unlike Judge Haywood S. Gilliam's decision in that case _ which only applied to the 13 states and the District of Columbia that filed suit in his court -- Beetlestone expanded the application of her injunction to cover the entire country.
Reproductive rights advocates and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office has twice gone to court seeking to block the Trump administration's efforts, were quick to declare victory. Citing federal government estimates, Shapiro lauded the decision, which will preserve access to no-cost contraception for as many as 127,000 women.
"Women need contraception for their health because contraception is medicine, pure and simple," Shapiro said in a statement. "Congress hasn't changed that law, and the President can't simply ignore it with an illegal rule."
But their win Monday is likely to be only the start of a drawn out legal battle.
Justice Department officials are almost certain to appeal and already are engaged in a similar challenge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit to an injunction Beetlestone issued to an earlier version of the proposed rules in 2017.
If the judge's rulings withstand appellate scrutiny, the Attorney General's Office will have to return to court to convince Beetlestone to make Monday's temporary injunction permanent.
In her ruling Monday, the judge explained her decision to apply her injunction nationally, citing the number of women who reside in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but who work for employers in other states.
The birth control mandate has been one of the most fiercely litigated aspects of the Obama administration's landmark health care overhaul.
Since it was enacted in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has generally required employers and insurers to provide preventive health services to women at no charge. Houses of worship that claimed religious objection were provided an avenue to opt out, soon after the law's passage.
In the eight years since, and after a number of court battles, the swath of employers eligible for exemptions has gradually expanded to include religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and nonprofits and certain privately held businesses owned by a small group of owners whose religious beliefs run counter to the law's contraception provisions.
Some of those exempted entities are still required to provide employees with health plans that offer birth control coverage paid by the insurance provider.
But since taking office, Trump has sought to eliminate that requirement and broadly expand the number and types of entities who could claim exemptions, fulfilling a campaign pledge he made to protect employers from being "bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs."
In 2017, administration officials proposed rules that would allow almost any business to claim a religious exemption and drop contraceptive coverage from their employees' health plans. They also proposed regulations that would permit all but publicly traded companies, including private colleges and universities that issue student health plans, on moral grounds.
Beetlestone blocked that earlier effort in a case brought by Shapiro's office, saying that the Affordable Care Act did not authorize such "sweeping exemptions."
The administration submitted a revised set of rules in November, prompting the challenge from Shapiro and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that led to Monday's ruling.