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Supreme Court Sends Little Sisters of the Poor Case Back to Lower Courts

Ian McWilliams CC

John Burger - published on 05/16/16 - updated on 06/08/17

Justices decline decision on merits of the case

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court on Monday vacated lower court rulings against religious non-profits objecting to Obamacare’s “contraceptive mandate.”

The court did not rule on the merits of Zubik v. Burwell, a closely-watched case that included the Little Sisters of the Poor, several Catholic dioceses and colleges and Priests for Life. But in the unsigned decision, the eight justices said the government may not fine the non-profits involved. The court sent the case back to the lower courts, saying the parties to the case “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 Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, called Monday’s order a win for the sisters, who operate nursing homes around the country.

“We are very encouraged by the Court’s decision,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund. “The Court has recognized that the government changed its position. It is crucial that the Justices unanimously ordered the government not to impose these fines and indicated that the government doesn’t need any notice to figure out what should now be obvious—the Little Sisters respectfully object. There is still work to be done, but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”

The central objection of the sisters and other religious non-profits had been that the government scheme, even with the various “accommodations” that had been developed, involved the non-profits and their health plans in a way that made them morally complicit in providing the drugs and devices.

In a press conference, Rienzi called the decision “a win for religious liberty” that affects not only the parties in the case but everybody in the country.

“It is also a confirmation of something we’ve been sayng all along, which is that the government does not need religious institutions in their health plan to give out contraceptives,” he said. “For five years, the government has been trying to put a gun to the head of religious institutions saying, ‘You must sign, or we will fine you milions of dollars.’”

“The United States government can put a man on the moon and put mail in your mailbox every day,” he continued. “It has a million different ways if it wants to make contraceptives available to employees…. What we have always said is ‘We can’t lend you our health plan to do this. You can facilitate this in any other way you want that leaves me out of it.'”

Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, said he was encouraged by the ruling.

“The United States Supreme Court has issued an order today vacating the decisions of the Courts of Appeals against Priests for Life and the other petitioners who are objecting to the HHS mandate (Priests for Life vs. HHS, part of Zubik vs. Burwell),” Father Pavone said. “We are studying the implications of this development, and are encouraged by it. We have indicated to the Supreme Court, in answer to its recent questions, that there is a way for the government to pursue its objectives without burdening our freedom of religion. We are ready to present these new arguments in the Court of Appeals, and are just as confident as before of the strength of our position.”

In a relatively rare move, after hearing oral arguments in Zubik in March, the high court asked both sides in the dispute to submit additional opinions, specifically, on how the government might better accommodate religious objectors to the mandate, which requires most health insurance plans to cover, with zero cost to the insured, a wide range of contraceptive drugs and devices.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman commented, “Religious organizations have the freedom to peacefully operate according to their beliefs without fear of severe penalties by the government. The Supreme Court was right to protect the Christian colleges and other groups from not having to pay fines or fill out forms authorizing the objectionable coverage. The government has many other ways to ensure women are able to obtain these drugs without forcing people of faith to participate in acts that violate their deepest convictions.”

ADF was representing Southern Nazarene University and Geneva College.

Not everyone was happy, of course. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the high court was forcing women and families to “wait longer to learn who in the this country has the ‘right’ to interfere with a woman’s personal health care decisions,'” according to CNN.

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