The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously sent the Little Sisters of the Poor's challenge to the federal mandate requiring insurance coverage of morally-objectionable services back to the federal appeals court, telling the nuns and the government to work out a compromise.
The case hinged on the nun's contention that the mandate violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). However, the eight high court justices declined to offer a view on RFRA, specifically writing "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 the interest."
The high court is operating without its usual nine members after the February death of justice Antonin Scalia. President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge for the Washington, D.C., federal court of appeals, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to schedule confirmation hearings.
The justices also ordered the federal appeals court to take into consideration additional information requested from both the Little Sisters and the government after oral arguments in March. That additional information appears to pave a way for the Little Sisters to provide health insurance to employees that does not provide the objectionable services, while the insurance company would offer the services at no cost to employees.
"The parties … should be afforded an opportunity to arrives 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 justices wrote in a unanimous statement. "We anticipate that the Courts of Appeals will allow the parties sufficient time to resolve an outstanding issues between them.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requires that all employers offer insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization. The religious exemption to the mandate is extremely narrow, and essentially applies only to churches. Religiously-affiliated nonprofits — such as hospitals, social service agencies, colleges and universities — were granted an "accommodation" to the mandate, allowing the entities to sign a form notifying the federal government that they could not participate because of conscience objections. Their insurance company would then provide the benefit to employees.
The nonprofits — including the Little Sisters of the Poor — contend that signing the form makes them complicit in providing the objectionable products, and will lead to a slippery slope regarding religious freedom.
The case — formally known as Zubik v. Burwell — also involves HHS mandate challengers Bishop David Zubik, head of the Pittsburgh diocese; the Archdiocese of Washington; Priests for Life; East Texas Baptist University; Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma; and Geneva College In Pennsylvania. Their cases are also remanded back to the lower courts for compromise.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a statement late today in which he stated he was "encouraged" by the Supreme Court's decision, which "maintains hope that we might resolve this dispute finally and favorably sometime in the future …"
Kurtz also noted the USCCB will maintain its opposition to the HHS mandate at the executive, legislative and judicial levels.
"We remain convinced that, as a nation, we do not wish to push people of faith and their ministries out of charitable work – under threat of severe government fines – or leave freedom of religion protected only in private worship," Kurtz stated.