Supreme Court Tells Catholic Orgs: You Won't Be Breaking Faith If You Provide Access to Contraception

In an unusual ruling Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a religiously based challenge to providing birth control services under Obamacare back to the lower courts, saying the Catholic institutions suing should be able to work out a compromise where their female employees can obtain needed contraception.


The court's unanimous ruling didn't take sides on the religious liberty questions that the Catholic hospitals raised. Instead they said that because women interact more directly with their health insurers over the details of their health plans than with the human resources departments providing employee benefits, that, in essence, the religious hospitals were not breaking with their faith to provide access to birth control.

"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," the Court wrote. "Petitioners [the Catholic hospitals] 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," they concluded.
That being the case, the Court then vacated all of outstanding religious liberty lawsuits filed to challenge this aspect of Obamacare and ordered the lower federal courts to oversee settlements with both sides so that Catholic hospitals do not have to get involved in any decision about offering birth control services, while at the same time allowing their women employees to get the reproductive care they need through their insurer. 
"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.”

While activists on both sides of the issue may find fault with the ruling because it does not resolve the legal questions, it preserves the right of women who work at Catholic institutions to access reproductive services.

“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 women’s seamless access to birth control," said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center.

However, how soon the affected employees at these institutions might have to wait to get access to full reproductive care is an open question.

"The Supreme Court... cleared the way for the government to promptly provide no-cost access to contraceptives for employees and students of non-profit religious hospitals, charities, and colleges, while barring any penalties on those institutions for failing to provide that access themselves," wrote Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog. "Thirteen separate cases were sent back to federal appeals courts for them to issue new rulings on the questions the Justices left undecided. One immediate issue is how soon the government can work out the technical arrangements to provide actual access to the contraceptive benefits."  

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