U.S. Supreme Court sends Zubik case back to lower courts

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — The U.S. Supreme Court May 16 sent the Zubick v. Burwell case, which challenges
the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement for employers, back to the lower courts.

The justices’ unanimous decision,
explained in a nine-page order, was based on the information that both sides submitted
a week after oral arguments were heard in the case about how and if
contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their
insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object
to this coverage.

The court made clear that it is not
expressing an opinion on the merits of the cases that are challenging aspects
of the federal government’s health legislation and it also was not ruling on
the issue of a potential violation of religious freedom.

Because of the “gravity of
the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions
of the parties,” the court stated that religious employers and the government
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 court stressed that this
approach is “more suitable” than addressing the refined positions submitted
by both sides and added that “although there may still be areas of disagreement
between the parties on issues of implementation, the importance of those areas
of potential concern is uncertain, as is the necessity of this court’s
involvement at this point to resolve them.”

This is not the first time the
court has sent a case back to the lower courts in light of new developments.

The opinion stressed
that sending this case back to lower courts should not affect the government from
making sure women covered by petitioners’ health plans obtain FDA-approved contraceptives, but it also means the government “may not impose taxes or penalties on
petitioners for failure to provide the relevant notice” stating their
objection to the coverage.

Oral arguments for
Zubick v. Burwell were heard March 23 and the court asked for additional
information March 29. The case involves the Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests
for Life, the Pennsylvania dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, and the Archdiocese
of Washington and other religious groups challenging the Affordable Care Act’s
mandate that most religious and other employers must cover contraceptives,
sterilization and abortifacients through employer-provided health insurance.

These groups, who do
not fit the narrow exemption to the contraceptive mandate given to churches,
argued that providing contraceptive coverage even indirectly through a third
party, as the Obama administration allows through what it calls an
accommodation, still violates their religious beliefs.

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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