Supreme Court Sends Health Law Contraception Case Back to Lower Courts

The high court vacated the judgments of the high-profile case Zubik v. Burwell.

— -- The Supreme Court said today it would not rule in the Zubik v. Burwell case, one of the most controversial legal challenges this year involving employer-sponsored health insurance and a woman’s right to contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

In a move that seemed designed to avoid an evenly-split ruling, the justices said they wouldn’t issue a decision on the merits, instead sending the case back to the lower courts with instructions to explore a possible compromise.

“Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand 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 justices wrote in the decision.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that employers’ insurance plans cover contraception without charging employees a co-pay fee.

But this aspect of the health care law offends some religious employers who oppose the use of contraception. As a result, the Obama administration has made two exceptions to the mandate: first, allowing churches and houses of worship full exemptions; and second, allowing non-profit religious organizations like hospitals and higher education institutions to opt out of paying for employees’ contraception altogether by simply notifying the federal government of their objection.

The Supreme Court ruling laid out the possibility that the lower courts might be able to hash out a compromise.

The plaintiffs of Zubik v. Burwell argue they should not have to fill out the required forms required to explain why they are opting out of providing birth control because doing so makes them complicit in providing women with contraception, which goes against their religious convictions.

The lead plaintiff in this case is Bishop David A. Zubik of the Roman Catholic diocese of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Some of the better-known plaintiffs are nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run nursing homes for the elderly. The plaintiffs also include private Christian higher education institutions.

The defendant, Sylvia Burwell, is secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services.