SCOTUS Sends Religious Challenge to Contraception, Obamacare Back to Lower Courts

By Kenrya Rankin May 16, 2016

In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, which challenges an Affordable Care Act provision that requires religious institutions to notify the government if they object to covering contraception for their employees so that their insurance producer can step in and provide the service. As NPR reports, the plaintiffs in the case said that the very act of writing the letter made them “complicit in sin.”

Today (Mary 16), SCOTUS unanimously declared that it would not decide the case at all, based on information requested and supplied after the oral arguments that makes it clear that the government and religious objectors can settle on a solution that doesn’t require its intervention:

Following oral argument, the court requested supplemental briefing from the parties addressing “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners.” Both petitioners and the government now confirm that such an option is feasible. Petitioners have clarified that their religious exercise is not infringed where they “need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception,” even if their employees receive cost-free contraceptive coverage from the same insurance company.

The government has confirmed that the challenged procedures “for employers with insured plans could be modified to operate in the manner posited in the court’s order while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage.”

Ultimately, the court remanded the individual cases that joined for Zubik v. Burwell back to their respective United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fifth, Tenth and D. C. Circuits, writing in the opinion: “The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases. In particular, the Court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”

SCOUTS also issued the following guidance:

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.”