The 411 on the Contraceptive Coverage Vs. Religious Freedom Case

By Obama (Obamacare) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Arguments over the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act return to the Supreme Court.

On March 23, the U.S. Supreme Court started the oral arguments particularly on the application of the religious accommodation provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare. The group of petitions which is later on consolidated into the Zubik v. Burwell case is spearheaded by the nonprofit organization The Little Sisters of the Poor.

Even before Obamacare was passed into a law, religious objections on the mandate for employers to provide contraceptives coverage to their employees were already strong. As a workaround, the government ensured that religious organizations including religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations shall not be compelled to do so. There are two accommodations provided by the act.

First, religious groups and organizations like churches including their subdivisions are exempted from the mandate. Second, nonprofit organizations with religious connections (those entities run by religious groups like certain hospitals, schools, nursing homes, charity institutions, etc) may not be compelled to provide contraceptives to their employees on one condition. Such accommodation may only be allowed if these organizations contract a third party healthcare company to provide such services indirectly.

But according to the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religiously affiliated entities (Zubik) which is represented legally by the Becket Fund, even the accommodation violates their faith. According to the group, even if the mandated contraception provision for their employees may indirectly be provided by a separate health insurance provider, the mere act of signing the insurance form is an implied approval of birth control, contraception and abortion. And for failure to sign the accommodation form, the Little Sisters is at risk of being fined to the tune of several million dollars.

In the Supreme Court case, the petitioners cite provisions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in support of their claims. RFRA is often resorted to by religious petitioners because courts will have to decide on the substantial burdens on religion of a particular rule without regard to any specific law. And in this particular case, the Little Sisters consider the indirect provision of contraceptives as a substantial burden to their faith warranting the court to defer to their claims.

On the other side, the administration through the Justice Department reiterated that the Obamacare accommodation is sound. According to its lawyers “The Little Sisters of the Poor has always been eligible for an accommodation from the contraceptive coverage requirement. In our diverse and pluralistic nation, the right to the free exercise of religion does not encompass a right to insist that the government take measures that unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling.” For the government, birth control provision is lawful and essential to women’s health.

The known defender of the RFRA Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty takes the side of the government this time. The committee claims that the petitioners or religiously affiliated employers have gone too far in their claims. For them, the legal abuse of the RFRA including religious accommodations and exemptions endangers such privileges very existence.

Unless the petitioners acquire at least five votes from the Supreme Court justices, the resolution of the case can be a lengthy process. Currently there are eight justices, making a split decision always a possibility. After the oral arguments, the Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling in June.

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