Supreme Court Sends ‘Contraceptive Mandate’ Cases Back to Lower Courts in Hopes of Honoring Religious Non-Profit Groups’ Objections

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The Supreme Court sought a compromise Monday on challenges by non-profit religious groups to the federal requirement that they play a minor role in offering free coverage of contraceptives to their female employees. 

The justices unanimously sent the cases back to federal appeals courts in hopes that they can emerge with a way to honor the objections of religious non-profit groups, such as charities and hospitals, while still guaranteeing free birth control to their employees.

“The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the opinion stated. “In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”

The battle over the so-called ‘contraceptive mandate’ was one of the high court’s biggest issues this term, pitting religious liberty against reproductive rights for the second time in three years. In 2014, the court ruled 5-4 that for-profit corporations whose owners objected to the rule could have their insurance plans deliver the health benefit directly.

That same accommodation previously had been offered to religious groups such as charities, hospitals and universities, but dozens of them complained they would be tainted even by transferring responsibility for services they equate with abortion to insurers or third-party administrators. They sought the same blanket exemption granted churches and other religious institutions under the Affordable Care Act.

Without Justice Antonin Scalia on the court, it was obvious during oral arguments in March that the religious groups lacked the five votes needed to overturn most lower court rulings against them. The court’s conservative justices said the government should not be able to “hijack” the insurance plans of religious groups against their moral beliefs. The liberal justices said employees should not have to find and pay for separate insurance policies just for contraceptives.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterated that point in a concurrence signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The court’s opinion, she wrote, “does not … endorse the petitioners’ position that the existing regulations substantially burden their religious exercise or that contraceptive coverage must be provided through a ‘separate policy.'”

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Source: USA Today |  Richard Wolf