The Supreme Court agreed Friday to settle a widespread dispute between the Obama administration and religious non-profits over insurance coverage for birth control, which is sure to elevate issues of religious freedom and reproductive rights in next year’s presidential campaign.
The justices agreed to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act from seven different non-profit organizations claiming religious objections, marking the second time in three years the so-called “contraceptive mandate” has come before the court — and the fourth time in five years it has faced off against President Obama’s signature health care law.
Sixteen months after ruling narrowly that private companies with religious objections cannot be forced to pay for employees’ contraceptives, the high court has been met with a chorus of cries from religious charities, schools and hospitals seeking to get out of the birth control business altogether. The new challenge asks the justices to overturn federal appeals court decisions that would force the non-profit groups to take action to opt out of the requirement, rather than receiving the blanket exclusion granted churches and other solely religious institutions.
On one hand, the court has saved Obamacare from legal destruction twice, in 2012 and again this year. But it ruled last year that closely-held corporations, such as arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby whose owners object to contraception, could hand off providing free coverage of birth control to insurers or others.
The solution, the court said, would be for those companies to inform the government or their insurance providers in writing that they would not pay for birth control, at which point the insurer would pay for it directly. Religious non-profits already had been granted such an accommodation after lengthy negotiations, but they say even writing a letter or filling out a form makes them complicit.
The petitions to a court generally protective of religious rights have come mostly from Catholic leaders in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, as well as religious schools, universities, hospitals and charities. Some object to paying for any contraceptives, others just for those they equate with abortion.
Lawyers for the Little Sisters of the Poor argued in their petition that “the government has put them to the impossible choice of either violating the law or violating the faith upon which their lives and ministry are based.” It said the nuns believe that the opt-out method offered as a solution “would make them morally complicit in grave sin.”
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Little Sisters, noted the Obama administration had recommended the court grant only one case, filed in Washington, D.C. Instead, the justices accepted all the cases pending before them, which will be consolidated for oral argument, most likely in March.
“The government’s on a bit of a losing streak at the Supreme Court on this issue,” Rienzi said.
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