Supreme court punts on challenge to Obama’s contraception mandate

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Justices order lower courts to find compromise in case involving faith-based organizations who hold moral objections to Obamacare contraception rules

In a sign of how unpredictable the US supreme court has become since Justice Antonin Scalias death left the bench short-handed, the eight remaining justices on Monday failed to reach a final conclusion in a significant religious challenge to the Affordable Care Acts contraception mandate.

Instead, in an unsigned, unanimous decision which cited the gravity of the dispute, the justices devoted final judgment power to the lower courts and ordered them to find a compromise even outlining how such arrangements could be reached.

The case, Zubik v Burwell, pitted the governmental forces against 29 faith-based not-for-profit organizations who claimed that the governments rules for groups with religious objections to covering female employees contraception were morally compromising.

It was the fourth challenge to Barack Obamas signature legislative accomplishment to reach the supreme court, and the second challenge to the mandate that employers offer insurance coverage for a wide range of contraceptive pills and devices.

The not-for-profits bringing the suit have the right to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage by filling out a short form alerting the government to their religious objection.( Catholic doctrine prohibits the use of family planning, and, contrary to scientific proof, several of the groups claim that the contraceptives covered under the Affordable Care Act cause abortions .) But the groups claim that filling out the kind constructed them complicit in providing contraception, since it defines in motion a process in which the government provides the coverage.

The government argues that it is not the sort which triggers the coverage, but the Affordable Care Act.A refusal to provide contraceptive coverage or fill out the form outcomes in steep fines.

The groups sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, entailing the case presented an opportunity to significantly broaden or circumscribe increased protection established by that 1993 act of Congress. Before coming before the supreme court in March, the two sides cast the trial as a high-stakes battle for womens equality or the fundamental right to religion freedom.

The justices topics at oral debates surely reflected that conflict. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito both posed topics implying that relying on the not-for-profit organisations healthcare provider in any way to insure contraceptive coverage constituted government hijacking.

But the justices sometimes seemed wary of choosing the suit, which was actually several lower court cases blended, with the same sweeping consequence as it has in other challenges to the Affordable Care Act. They asked questions that dwelled on the vagaries of the insurance marketplace. Several days after arguments, the court induced the unusual move of calling for additional briefs from both sides, in a signal that the majority opinion might strike a compromise.

Now, it seems as though the justices were brokering a peace.

Mondays order informs the lower courts to rule based on the new debates and information presented in those briefs. The two sides, the court said, had agreed in their briefs that an acceptable compromise would be for religious employers to contract with their insurance provider for a coverage scheme that omits contraceptives, and for the same insurance company to simply provide the excluded contraceptio

Until those new rulings come down, the government may continue acting on the forms it receives from not-for-profit organizations to cover contraception for the nonprofits employees. The ruling also bided any fines the nonprofits faced for failing to comply.

The Court carries no view on the merits of the cases, Mondays decision reads. In particular, the Court does not decide whether petitioners religion exercising has been substantially burdened, whether the Government has a compelling interest to ensure contraceptive coverage, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive the ways and means of serving that interest.

A concurrence by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg stressed that lower courts were still free to rule that the governments approach did not impinge on religious practice, as many appeals courts have.

The tribunals approach was an unusual one, and many of the the immediate reactions reflected a nation of uncertainty.

While we are disappointed that the court did not resolve once and for all whether the religious beliefs of religiously affiliated non-profit employers can block womens seamless access to birth control, we are confident in the final outcome, Gretchen Borchelt, a vice-president with the National Womens Law Center, said in a bellow with reporters. She said the order cleared the style for the government to provide seamless health coverage to the tens of thousands of women employees and students of non-profit religion hospitals and charities, colleges.

A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood said the decision will maintain long-term uncertainty for women who work at nonprofit organizations about whether the accommodation will enable them to access to birth control with no copay.

The nonprofits claimed a partial victory.

We are very encouraged by the Courts decision, said Mark Rienzi, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented one of the not-for-profit groups, the Little Sisters of the Poor, before the court. Todays decision indicates that we will ultimately predominate in court.

Mondays outcome is presumed to be the outcomes of the justices failure to find a majority. A 4-4 split would have handed liberals a victory, since a tie-in automatically confirms the appeals court decision under review. Seven appeals courts that have considered the questions in this case help find for the government.

This is not the first time that Scalias empty seat on the court has thrown an element of opportunity into this years word. In late March, a split decision handed a major victory to liberals in a challenge to public sector unions ability to collect dues. The example, argued while Scalia was still on the bench, appeared poised to deal a deadly jolt to public unions if the conservative justices mustered a majority.

On Monday, Sotomayors concurring opinion emphasizing the narrow nature of the courts decision.

Todays opinion does only what it says it does: affords an opportunity for the parties and courts of appeals to reconsider the parties debates in light of the new briefs submitted in March. As enlightened by the parties new submissions, the Courts of Appeals remain free to reach the same conclusion or a different one on each of the questions presented by these cases.

Additional reporting by Lauren Gambino

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