Supreme Court to hear challenges to contraceptive mandate brought by religious organizations

On Nov., 6, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the challenges of religiously motivated non-profit employers who object to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. Churches and other religious employers that provide strictly ministerial and devotional services are exempt from the ACA, but religious colleges, group homes and medical service providers must comply with the law unless they give notice they are eligible for a religious accommodation. Once such notification is given, contraceptive and abortifacient insurance coverage is provided at no cost to the employer.

The court’s decision will be based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, and may determine not only whether the required notification constitutes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion, but also whether religious practitioners themselves are empowered to determine the degree or substantiality of their burden. Seven lower courts ruled against the religious organizations and found the notice requirements did not violate RFRA, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in St. Louis, recently held the law did substantially burden the employer’s free exercise of religion and violated RFRA because it was not the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s interest. The Supreme Court will hear the cases next year and likely will not issue a decision until May or June, but it has issued stays in each case so the religious employers are not penalized for their refusal to comply with the contraceptive coverage mandate.

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