Comments by Vice President Joe Biden yesterday suggest a more conciliatory approach by the Administration toward religious liberty objections to the contraceptives mandate. The Vice President said that people have not focused enough on the additional year that the HHS gave objecting institutions for coming into compliance: “There’s going to be a significant attempt to work this out, and there’s time to do that. And as a practicing Catholic, you know, I am of the view that this can be worked out and should be worked out and I think the president, I know the president, feels the same way.”
The Administration has less time than it may think to “work this out.” Thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, the Administration will need to answer in federal court well before another year has expired. The operative regulation is an “Interim Final Rule” approved on July 28, 2011, effective August 1, 2011, and published in the Federal Register on August 3, 2011 at 76 Fed. Reg. 46,621. The “interim” label does not prevent this regulation from being final agency action that is challengeable in federal court under the Administrative Procedure Act. Moreover, the “interim” label does not control the standing or ripeness analysis in any of the lawsuits that have been filed to date. To the extent that the Vice President’s comments might suggest a rope-a-dope rulemaking strategy for the Administration to avoid having to answer in federal court for its violation of religious liberty, that strategy should not succeed.
In any event, the Vice President’s interpretation of the purpose of the one-year cannot be squared with the HHS’s announcement of it (an announcement that coincided, but not coincidentally, with marking of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade). As the announcement makes clear, the one-year period is for religious objectors to come into compliance–a transitional period for the groups to accommodate themselves to the new legal order imposed upon them. The HHS announcement provided every indication of having made a firm decision and no indication that its position, rather than that of the objectors, would yield.