WASHINGTON (CNS): In a victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other plaintiffs, the Supreme Court of the United States of America (US), sent the Zubik v. Burwell case, which challenges the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement for employers, back to the lower courts on May 16.
Five appeals courts had ruled in favour of the contraceptive mandate and one against. But now, in light of new information submitted by both sides to the Supreme Court, the lower courts have been ordered to review these cases once more.
In a unanimous decision in the case about how and if contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers, the Supreme Court said 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 opinion stressed that sending the case back to lower courts should not keep the government from making sure women can obtain 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.
“This is a game-changer,” Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, said.
He said in a May 16 statement that the opinion reflects that the court has “accepted the government’s concession” that it can provide contraceptives to women “without using the Little Sisters.”
He was also pleased the court was forbidding the government “from fining the Little Sisters even though they are refusing to bow to the government’s will. It is only a matter of time before the lower courts make this victory permanent.”
Bishop David Zubik, from Pittsburgh, for whom the consolidated group of cases is named, said in a statement that the Pittsburgh diocese was grateful the justices “recognise our willingness to reach a resolution that allows us to abide by our faith and the government to achieve its goals.”
He added, “We have already stated our willingness to come to such an agreement and we hope that the government shares that willingness.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, another of the plaintiffs, said he and other in his organisation are “studying the implications of this development and are encouraged by it.”
He said the group, in response to the court’s request for more information, showed that there is “a way for the government to pursue its objectives without burdening our freedom of religion. We are ready to present these new arguments in the court of appeals.”
Donald Cardinal Wuerl, from Washington, took a more nuanced view, saying he was pleased that the Supreme Court’s opinion offered a path forward, but acknowledging that “this struggle will continue.” The Washington archdiocese is one of several plaintiffs in this case.