By Sarah Ferris – 05/16/16
The Supreme Court on Monday gave the Obama administration a final chance to work out a compromise with religious groups opposed to the birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act. In an opinion released Monday, the high court vacated the judgments of the high-profile case, Zubik v. Burwell, and sent it back to lower courts.
It also doesn’t decide whether the federal government “has a compelling interest” to enforce the mandate.
Instead, the justices unanimously instructed both parties to find a tweak to the contraceptive mandate to eliminate any faith-based concerns “while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly.”
“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,’” the justices wrote in the decision.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Little Sisters of the Poor, called the ruling an “important win”
“The Court has recognized that the government changed its position,” said Mark Rienzi, the lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “There is still work to be done, but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”
The Supreme Court had hinted at a way to resolve the dispute without a new ruling.
Shortly after the 90-minute oral arguments on March 23, the justices took the surprising step of asking for an additional briefing. During that time, both the government and the petitioners told the justices they believed they could reach a compromise.
The compromise ultimately reached by the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Obama administration will have a ripple effect across other religious charities, hospitals and institutions that have taken issue with the mandate.
This year’s case on the contraception mandate comes two years after the Supreme Court’s major ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which restricted the federal government’s power to require birth control coverage in healthcare plans run by religiously affiliated companies.