Judge rules that federal agency can't enforce abortion rule in Louisiana and Mississippi

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge on Monday granted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as employers in two Southern states, temporary relief from complying with a federal rule that would have required them to provide workers with time off and other workplace accommodations for abortions.

Judge David Joseph granted the preliminary injunction in two consolidated lawsuits, one brought by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the other brought by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University and two Catholic dioceses.

The lawsuits challenge rules issued in April by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which stated that abortions are among pregnancy-related conditions covered by the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which passed in December 2022 and took effect last year.

The EEOC rules take effect Tuesday.

Joseph, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, enjoined the EEOC from enforcing the abortion provision of its rules against the Catholic plaintiffs and employers located in Louisiana and Mississippi for the duration of the lawsuit.

His ruling came just days after a federal judge in Arkansas dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by 17 states led by Arkansas and Tennessee. Eastern District of Arkansas U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall, Jr., who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, ruled that the states lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.

“The District Court applied a common sense interpretation of the plain words of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill said in an emailed statement about the Louisiana ruling.

It was a partial victory for the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi, who had asked for a much broader emergency injunction that would have stopped the entirety of the EEOC rules from taking effect nationwide. That request had alarmed some civil rights and women’s advocacy groups, who warned that the EEOC rules are critical to the successful implementation of the law.

In an amicus brief, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women's Law Center, along with more than 20 labor and women’s advocacy groups, cited dozens of cases of pregnant workers who employers have continued to resist granting them accommodations, and said the EEOC rules provided clarity for resolving disputes.

“The court has left some pregnant workers who need abortion-related accommodations to fend for themselves,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, vice president of Workplace Justice and Education at the NWLC.

Rachel Shanklin, National Women’s Entrepreneurship Director for Small Business Majority, said even the limited ruling on Monday would have a big impact by making it "more difficult -- at least temporarily -- for women in the workplace to access abortion care."

"Our research consistently finds that women entrepreneurs said the ability to choose if and when to start a family played a significant role in their ability to advance their careers and launch their small businesses,” Shanklin said in a statement.

Dina Bakst, co-founder and president of the legal advocacy group A Better Balance, which spearheaded a decade-long campaign for the law, condemned the ruling in Louisiana, saying it “disregarded decades of legal precedent” interpreting pregnancy-related medical conditions to include abortion.

However, she stressed that it was “important for pregnant and postpartum workers to understand that this ruling does not mean their rights under the PWFA have been taken away,” given the limited scope of the injunction.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed with widespread bipartisan support in December 2022 after a decade-long campaign by women's right advocates, who hailed it as a victory for low-wage workers who have routinely been denied accommodations for everything from time off for medical appointments to the ability to sit or stand on the job.

But many Republican lawmakers, including Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who co-sponsored the bill, were furious when the EEOC stated that the law covered abortions. Both Republican commissioners on the five-member EEOC voted against the rules.

In its regulations, the EEOC said its inclusion of abortion is consistent with its own decades-long interpretation of pregnancy-related anti-discrimination law, along with numerous court rulings backing that interpretation.

The regulations also specified that the rules do not require any employer to provide health care coverage for abortions and the most likely accommodation request would be for time off to undergo the procedure or recover from any complications. The EEOC has said that any situations where an accommodation request potentially conflicts with state laws would be examined on a “case-by-case” basis.

In their lawsuit, the attorneys general said the “EEOC is forcing States like Louisiana and Mississippi to go against State law and effectively facilitate an abortion.”

Mississippi and Louisiana have near-total bans on abortion, except to save the life of the pregnant person or in cases of rape that has been reported to law enforcement in Mississippi, and when there is a substantial risk of death or impairment to the patient in continuing the pregnancy and in cases where the fetus has a fatal abnormality in Louisiana.

In its lawsuit, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it had publicly backed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act because lawmakers had stressed its uncontroversial nature, with some expressly stating that it would not require leave for elective abortions.

Laura Wolk Slavis, a lawyer representing the Catholic groups, said “the EEOC hijacked a bipartisan protection for expecting mothers and their babies, imposing a national abortion-accommodation mandate." She said the ruling was a “crucial step” in restoring the law "to its purpose."

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This story was first published on June 17, 2024. It was updated on July 3, 2024, to correct details of Mississippi's abortion ban.