The Affordable Care Act’s contraception insurance coverage mandate is at the heart of a national debate that might now be determined by the results of a national election. But if it weren’t for a court victory Tim Belz secured in Missouri, things might have been different.
Belz is the lawyer for CNS International Ministries Inc. and Heartland Christian College, two related religious non-profits in rural northeastern Missouri that object to participating in insurance plans that cover certain methods of contraception they say are tantamount to abortion. Although the U.S. government has an accommodation process that reduces that participation, religiously affiliated companies across the country say it is needlessly burdensome.
“We just want to be left out of it,” Belz says.
Most appellate circuits that had considered the matter sided with the government, but Belz’s clients won a victory in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2015. The court ruled that the accommodation process violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by imposing a substantial burden on the non-profits’ exercise of religion — and that it was for the religious organization, not the court, to decide if following the accommodation process “would make them complicit in a grave moral wrong as the price of avoiding a ruinous financial penalty.”
That ruling (along with one in a companion case from Iowa) created a circuit split that probably prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter. In all likelihood, the Supreme Court would have issued a definitive ruling had Justice Antonin Scalia not died in February. The resulting court, evenly divided, returned the cases to the appellate courts rather than rule on the merits of the issue, telling the parties to come up with a new approach.
Since then, the cases have been in a holding pattern — as has a similar case that Belz won in St. Louis federal court in July on behalf of a Missouri state senator who alleged the mandate violated his personal religious freedoms.
“It’s been pretty clear that the government is in no hurry to resolve this,” he said.
That might be about to change. Even if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t repeal or radically change the Affordable Care Act, President Donald Trump’s stamp on the federal agencies that implement the ACA and defend it in court could change everything.
“I’ve never seen an election cause such an earthquake,” Belz said.
Belz, a 1976 graduate of the University of Iowa Law School, has been in private practice in St. Louis since 1982, following a stint as a prosecutor in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He often handles cases involving free speech, religious freedom and association, and parental rights.
Missouri Lawyers Weekly previously honored Belz as a Lawyer of the Year in 2004 for his work defending Heartland Christian Academy (which is related to the plaintiff companies in the contraceptive case) after it was raided by state officials based on allegations of abuse of students. A federal judge enjoined the raids.