Obama Losing Fight With Nuns: Birth Control Battle Returns to Lower Court

Sister Loraine McGuire with Little Sisters of the Poor speaks to the media after Zubik v. Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

The United States Supreme Court sent several challenges to the Human and Human Services Department's contraception mandate back to the lower courts, vacating the earlier rulings.

Plaintiffs, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, East Texas Baptist University, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington will have their lawsuits decided at the lower court level.

In a Per Curiam decision released Monday morning, the highest court in the land reasoned that the lower court decisions were to be vacated in light of a new possible resolution between the two parties.

Nuns rally before Zubik v. Burwell, an appeal brought by Christian groups demanding full exemption from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act, is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 23, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

"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'," read the decision.

"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."

In a concurring opinion, liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote that she joined the decision because it did not rule on the merits of the cases, including whether or not groups like the Little Sisters are substantially burdened by the current rules of the HHS mandate.

"The opinion does not … endorse the petitioners' position that the existing regulations substantially burden their religious exercise or that contraceptive coverage must be provided through a 'separate policy, with a separate enrollment process'," wrote Justice Sotomayor.

"As enlightened by the parties' new submissions, the Courts of Appeals remain free to reach the same conclusion or a different one on each of the questions presented by these cases."

Over the past few years the Obama Administration has garnered legal controversy over its birth control mandate for employers.

Some have argued that the HHS mandate forces religious groups to cover services like birth control and abortion regardless of their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Others, including the federal government, argue that the exemptions provided for religious conscience are sufficient and that going further may hinder women's access to good health care.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that has represented many groups suing HHS over the mandate, celebrated Monday's decision.

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund and an attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor, said in a statement that they were "encouraged" by the decision.

"We are very encouraged by the Court's decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters. The Court has recognized that the government changed its position," stated Rienzi.

"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."

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