Religious Objections on Obamacare Get U.S. Supreme Court Review

  • Justices take appeals from religious groups on contraception
  • Case marks Supreme Court's fourth showdown over Obamacare

Demonstrators in support of President Barack Obama's health-care law contraception requirement hold up signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on March 25, 2014.

Photographer: Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The U.S. Supreme Court scheduled a new showdown over Obamacare and religious rights, agreeing to hear contentions by faith-based groups that they shouldn’t have to facilitate what they consider to be immoral insurance coverage for contraceptives.

The case, which centers on the Obama administration’s push to make birth control a standard part of health insurance, will determine the extent to which government officials must allow exceptions for people who say their religious principles prevent them from following the law. Critics say the administration hasn’t adequately accommodated religious employers that equate some forms of contraception with murder.

“Many religious ministries are being forced to choose between violating their sincere religious beliefs or violating federal law,” argued Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns whose appeal was one of seven similar petitions the court agreed on Friday to hear.

The case has the potential to affect thousands of universities, hospitals, religious orders and other nonprofits. Hundreds of those groups have sued over the issue, citing a federal religious-freedom law.  It comes to the high court as religious objections to same-sex marriage engender debates around the country.

The court will hear arguments in late March and rule by the end of June. The dispute marks the fourth Supreme Court clash over the Affordable Care Act since its passage in 2010.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that closely held companies can refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to their workers. The newest case involves religious nonprofits, rather than for-profit companies, and centers on the adequacy of the Obama administration’s system for letting those groups avoid having to directly provide coverage.

The controversy stems from the Obamacare requirement that contraceptive coverage be included in health plans for employees and students.

Shift Responsibility

The administration gives objecting nonprofits two options: they can shift responsibility onto their insurer by providing it with a “self-certification” form, or they can notify the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of their objection and provide contact information for their insurer. Either way, the federal government reimburses the insurer for the cost of the coverage.

QuickTake Obamacare, Assessed

“Taking either step relieves the employer of any obligation to provide, arrange or pay for the coverage to which it objects,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top courtroom lawyer, argued in court papers.

The administration says neither option imposes the type of “substantial burden” on religious exercise that would trigger protection under the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The administration also contends that the rights of religious groups aren’t affected just because the government requires the insurer or plan administrator to provide the coverage.

“In our pluralistic society, that sort of substitution of obligations is an appropriate means of accommodating religious objectors while also protecting the important interests of third parties, such as women’s interest in full and equal health coverage,” Verrilli wrote.

Religious groups say they shouldn’t have to play any role in the administration’s birth-control program.

Religion Violated?

“This case is only about whether the government can commandeer petitioners and their health plans as vehicles for delivering abortifacient and contraceptive coverage in violation of their religion,” a group led by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., argued in an appeal. That group includes Catholic University in Washington and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

Among the others pressing appeals are Priests for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group; Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh; East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas; and Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.

Most of the federal appeals courts to have ruled on the issue have said the administration is adequately protecting religious rights.

Churches are exempt entirely from having to offer contraceptive coverage to employees, but most other religious groups must either provide coverage or invoke one of the administration’s two options.

Some of the appeals before the justices present small variations on the general theme. The employees of Little Sisters, for example, might not get birth control coverage regardless how the case is resolved.

That’s because the group, which runs 30 nursing homes and has hundreds of lay employees, uses what is known as a “church plan.” The administration says it can’t legally compel church plans to comply with the contraceptive mandate, though the government says Little Sisters nonetheless must provide notice of its religious objection.

The Supreme Court intervened in the Little Sisters case before, giving the nuns a reprieve in 2014 from an earlier version of the administration’s rules. In what looked to be a compromise order, the court said Little Sisters needed only to notify federal officials in writing of the group’s objection to the contraceptive rules.

The lead case is Zubik v. Burwell, 14-1418.

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