The sequel to last year's Hobby Lobby case is here.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear seven appeals from various religious organizations claiming that a contraceptive "accommodation" under the Affordable Care Act burdens their religious beliefs.
Under the health care law's so-called contraceptive mandate, employers are generally required to provide female workers with insurance coverage for a range of birth control methods at no cost to the workers.
But federal regulations allows religious nonprofits to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. To do so, all they have to do is fill out a form, note their objections and then let the government and a third-party insurance provider sort out the details of the coverage.
The religious groups before the Supreme Court have a problem with the opt-out form itself. Suing under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- which was also at play in the Hobby Lobby case -- they are urging the justices to rule that the very act of opting out as religious objectors is tantamount to being complicit in providing birth control.
This act, they claim, amounts to a "substantial burden" on religion.
Seven courts of appeals have roundly rejected that argument. In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit became the first court in the nation to rule the other way, siding with a Christian nonprofit and a group of religious colleges on the issue.
"The plaintiffs in these cases are already exempt from providing contraceptive coverage to their employees," said Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that has submitted briefs siding with the federal government in all these cases. "Now, they ask the Supreme Court to block their employees from getting that coverage from third parties, at no cost to the plaintiffs. This is not about religious freedom; it’s about controlling their employees’ access to contraception, whatever its source."
Perhaps the most prominent plaintiff in the case is the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns that received a special visit from the Pope during his U.S. visit in September.
In a statement, the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom -- which was part of Hobby Lobby Stores' legal team -- praised the Supreme Court's decision Friday to hear the case. The Fund represents a number of Christian organizations raising objections to the Obamacare accommodation.
In its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court stunned observers when it ruled for the first time that a "closely held" corporation is covered by RFRA and can invoke its protections to claim that the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate "substantially burdened the exercise of religion."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest defended the administration's contraceptive workaround at a briefing Friday afternoon.
"The policy we have in place appropriately balances the need for millions of Americans to have access to birth control while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in our Constitution," he said.
He underscored the fact that seven appellate courts have sided with the government, adding, "we've got confidence in the argument that we'll be able to make before the Supreme Court."
In light of the number of parties and appeals -- which the Supreme Court consolidated into one case -- the court clerk sent a letter to the lawyers involved asking them to propose a way to "keep the number of briefs to a minimum and avoid repetition of argument."
The court is expected to hear oral arguments in the consolidated cases sometime in March, with a decision slated by the end of the court's term in June.
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