US Supreme Court declines to rule in birth control challenge

The Court avoided a major ruling on a Christian nonprofit employer's challenge to an Obamacare mandate to provide female workers with health insurance covering birth control.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
A couple sit in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington. The high court on Monday avoided ruling on a controversial case regarding an Affordable Care Act mandate requiring employers to provide employees with health insurance coverage that includes birth control by sending the case back down to the lower courts.

The US Supreme Court on Monday said it would not rule in a case brought by Christian nonprofit employers who oppose an Obamacare mandate requiring all employers to provide female workers with access to birth control. In an unsigned unanimous opinion, the court said it is sending the case back to lower courts to explore whether a compromise in the case is possible.

In the case Zubik v. Burwell, No. 14-1418, religious groups objected to providing insurance coverage that includes contraception to their female employees.

At the center of the debate is an accommodation that the government makes for nonprofit groups that are affiliated with religious organizations, such as hospitals. It allows them not to pay for contraceptive coverage and to avoid fines if they submit paperwork notifying their insurers, plan administrators, or the government that they want the exemption.

Many religious groups say they don't want to be required to provide information that would implicate them in activities that violate their faith. Instead, they want an exemption that's offered to houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, which are not subject to the coverage requirement or to the paperwork requirement.

According to briefs filed by the government and the by plaintiffs in the case, there is a way for these religious organizations to offer insurance plans that do not include coverage of contraception, while still allowing the government to ensure that women receive contraceptive coverage "'seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage,'" the court wrote, citing the government's brief.

"Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage,'" wrote the justices, citing language from a government brief.

The request that lower courts help the parties to come to a compromise is somewhat unusual, but the decision is less than surprising given the current makeup of the court. With recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia's seat still vacant, a tie was a significant possibility, as the Monitor's Henry Gass reported in March: 

In such an event, the court would not write an opinion and the rulings of the lower courts would stand.

But that becomes problematic in this case, Zubik v. Burwell. The case is a consolidation of seven different petitions, and in the lower courts there were conflicting rulings on those petitions. As a result, if there were a tie vote, the contraception mandate would apply in some areas of the country but not others, says Jessica Waters, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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