(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Supreme Court scheduled a new showdown over a mandate connected with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and religious rights, agreeing to hear contentions that faith-based groups shouldn’t have to facilitate what they consider to be immoral insurance coverage for contraceptives.
The case, which centers on the Obama administration’s push to make birth control a standard part of the major medical insurance benefits package, will determine the extent to which government officials must allow exceptions for people who say their religious principles prevent them from following the law. Critics say the administration hasn’t adequately accommodated religious employers that equate some forms of contraception with murder.
“Many religious ministries are being forced to choose between violating their sincere religious beliefs or violating federal law,” argued an appeal by the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns.
The case has the potential to affect thousands of universities, hospitals, religious orders and other nonprofits. Hundreds of those groups have sued over the issue, citing a federal religious-freedom law. It comes to the high court as religious objections to gay marriage engender debates around the country.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that closely held companies can refuse on religious grounds to offer birth-control coverage to their workers. The newest case involves religious nonprofits, rather than for-profit companies, and centers on the adequacy of the Obama administration’s system for letting those groups avoid having to directly provide coverage.
The controversy stems from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determination that the basic package of must-cover preventive services created by PPACA should include contraceptive coverage.
The administration gives objecting nonprofits two options: They can shift responsibility onto their insurer by providing it with a “self-certification” form, or they can notify HHS of their objection and provide contact information for their insurer. Either way, the federal government reimburses the insurer for the cost of the coverage.
“Taking either step relieves the employer of any obligation to provide, arrange or pay for the coverage to which it objects,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top courtroom lawyer, argued in court papers.
The administration says neither option imposes the type of “substantial burden” on religious exercise that would trigger protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The administration also contends that the rights of religious groups aren’t affected just because the government requires the insurer or plan administrator to provide the coverage.
“In our pluralistic society, that sort of substitution of obligations is an appropriate means of accommodating religious objectors while also protecting the important interests of third parties, such as women’s interest in full and equal health coverage,” Verrilli wrote.
Religious groups say they shouldn’t have to play any role in the administration’s birth-control program.
“This case is only about whether the government can commandeer petitioners and their health plans as vehicles for delivering abortifacient and contraceptive coverage in violation of their religion,” a group led by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., argued in an appeal. The group includes Catholic University in Washington and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.
Most of the federal appeals courts to have ruled on the issue have said the administration is adequately protecting religious rights.
Churches are exempt entirely from having to offer contraceptive coverage to employees, but most other religious groups must either provide coverage or invoke one of the administration’s two options.