Supreme Court limits birth control on religious grounds. What's next?

In related decisions this week, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a business and a college seeking exemptions on religious grounds from birth control provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Many more such cases are expected.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
Anti-abortion demonstrators cheer at the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that business owners can object on religious grounds to a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring companies to provide health insurance that covers birth control.

The US Supreme Court this week ruled that the federal government could not force religious owners of closely-held, for-profit corporations to provide contraceptives to employees under health care insurance provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

A few days after the Hobby Lobby ruling, the court granted a request by Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian school, to block any enforcement against the school for refusing to comply with the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.

That’s gotten pundits and serious thinkers wondering whether majority conservatives on the high court might see other opportunities to be more accommodating of religion in their rulings.

Writing the Hobby Lobby dissent (on behalf of all three women on the court, plus Justice Stephen Breyer), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, "Would the exemption ... extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus)?"

Less seriously, Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim, extrapolates the court’s ruling to suggest that legal precedent has now been set. He speculates on the “other laws that could be ignored now that Christians get to pick and choose.”

Among them, he suggested: laws against public nudity, hallucinogenic drugs, refusal to pay taxes, and public stoning.

Writing the dissent in the Wheaton College ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor – again, joined by the other women on the court – cautioned that “the ruling will presumably entitle hundreds or thousands of other objectors to the same remedy."

Taking up this line of thinking, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief David Lauter asks, “Won't the [Hobby Lobby] ruling allow religious claims for exemption from all sorts of other laws?”

“Yes, but many of them won't win,” he writes. “The court's ruling will allow more companies to get their day in court to assert religious claims for opting out of other laws they don't like. That will mean a lot of lawsuits. But the ruling doesn't say religion holds a trump card that always wins. Instead, it says that courts need to weigh how much of a burden a particular law imposes on religious belief against the government's need to achieve the law's goals. In this case, the majority said that the balance tilted in favor of the religious objectors, in part because the government … had another way to achieve its goal.”

In any case, the Obama administration is trying to figure out what to do next regarding President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment universally known as “Obamacare.”

“Legal and health care experts expect a rush to court involving scores of employers seeking to take advantage of the two decisions,” reports the New York Times

One proposal the White House is studying would put companies’ insurers or health plan administrators on the spot for contraceptive coverage, with details of reimbursement to be worked out later, the Times reports. Another would give the administration itself a larger role in offering cost-free coverage to women who cannot get it through their employers, although the option for a new government entitlement appears unrealistic for financial and political reasons.

“The White House is under such pressure that no one has been able to work out details of how the alternatives would be financed or administered,” the Times reports.

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