In birth control case, Supreme Court upholds Trump’s expanded exceptions for religious institutions

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on May 3, 2020. (CNS photo/Will Dunham, Reuters) A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on May 3, 2020. (CNS photo/Will Dunham, Reuters) 

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a 7-2 ruling July 8, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trump administration rules that give employers more ability to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage in their health plans.

The decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the administration had "the authority to provide exemptions from the regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections."

Advertisement

Dissenting votes were by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

The case examined if the expansion of the conscience exemption from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate violated the health care law and laws governing federal administrative agencies.

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

It highlighted—as it has before when the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate has come before the high court—the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of women religious who care for the elderly poor. The sisters were represented, as they have been previously, by Becket, a religious liberty law firm.

The oral arguments were the combined cases of Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.

A recap of the sisters' involvement in this case goes back to 2013 when religious groups and houses of worship were granted a religious exemption by the Supreme Court from the government's mandate to include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Three years later, religious nonprofit groups challenged the requirement to comply with the mandate and the court sent the cases back to the lower courts with instructions for the federal government and the challengers to try to work out an agreeable solution.

Then in 2017, religious groups were given further protection from the contraceptive mandate through an executive order issued by President Donald Trump requiring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to write a comprehensive exemption to benefit religious ministries, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, from the contraceptive mandate. HHS provided this exemption in 2018, but several states challenged it, including California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, saying HHS didn't have the power to give this exemption.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

Pennsylvania and New Jersey obtained a nationwide injunction against the rules protecting religious objectors from the contraceptive mandate; that injunction was then upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia.

This is where the Little Sisters come back because they appealed the circuit court's ruling and asked the Supreme Court to step in.

In one of the two consolidated cases, Trump v. Pennsylvania, the administration argued that the exceptions to the contraceptive mandate for religious groups were authorized by the health care law and required by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA.

Lawyers for Pennsylvania and New Jersey said the administration lacked statutory authority to issue such regulations and said the government did not follow proper administrative procedures.

The second case examines whether the Little Sisters of the Poor had the standing to appeal the 3rd Circuit ruling since a separate court order had already allowed them to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the Little Sisters of the Poor, which stressed that the court needs to set the record straight, particularly with its interpretation of RFRA, which says "governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification."

The brief said there was a compelling need to review this case not only because the 3rd Circuit Court decision conflicts with other Supreme Court rulings on this topic in Hobby Lobby and Zubik decisions, but because its ruling "threatens to reduce one of America's leading civil rights laws to virtual impotence," referring to RFRA.

It emphasized that RFRA essentially hangs in the balance because the appeals court "adopted a grudging interpretation of the statute that will, unless reversed, too often deny protection for religious people and institutions."

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Robert MacDougall in “Boys State” (photo: A24) 
In a new award-winning documentary about Texas Boys State, democracy is fraught with conflict.
Ryan Di CorpoAugust 14, 2020
We use the words “mystery” and “miracle” not to say that science has been stumped but rather to express the expansive claim that an event makes upon us.
Terrance KleinAugust 14, 2020
It has been two years since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published, documenting in disturbing detail at least 1,000 cases of abuse by 300 predator priests spanning seven decades.
Colleen DulleAugust 14, 2020
The precedent for attacking an opponent on religious grounds is more apt than you might think.