The court’s restraint in church-contraceptive case

The Supreme Court wisely avoids ruling directly in an apparent clash of religious liberty and access to contraceptives, citing a path for compromise.

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Supporters of contraception rally at the Supreme Court in March before a hearing in the case of Zubik v. Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

In an unusual ruling Monday, the US Supreme Court decided not to pick sides in a group of cases that seemed to pit religious liberty against a woman’s access to contraceptives. Instead, all eight justices punted the cases back to the lower courts to find a discrete compromise peculiar to the issue. This was a wise move given the “culture wars” in American politics that often push judges to decide what is the correct exercise of religion.

The cases centered on a federal requirement that nonprofit religious organizations, such as a church charity, participate in the process of offering free coverage of contraceptives to their female employees. Such groups wanted the high court to prevent the Obama administration from imposing fines if they did not sign a form that allows them to opt out of the coverage and triggers the government to arrange it instead. This requirement, they said, would harm their religious conscience.

The justices decided not to reach for any grand legal theory, either about an undue burden on religion or a compelling government interest in women’s health care. They did not want to delve into gender rights or what is the proper expression of faith in a church ministry. The constitutional importance of such issues is as “uncertain” in these cases as is the necessity of the court’s involvement, they said.

The high court instead ordered the two sides to craft a new regulatory scheme that will provide contraceptives to the groups’ employees but not impinge on the religious groups’ “decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage....” The ruling is a victory for judicial modesty in the face of the escalating legal battles over church-state issues.

Many disputes involving religion and public life are best solved by focusing only on specific details, often in friendly settings and by keeping issues narrowly defined. Courts are simply not equipped to meddle in every religious concern by imposing legal abstractions on matters of faith. “It may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority,” wrote James Madison, a primary author of the US Constitution.

In a previous ruling, the Supreme Court advised government to “refrain from trolling through a person’s or institution’s religious beliefs.” In this latest ruling, the justices applied that rule to themselves. Their restraint should be a model for today’s politics.

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