Tags: US | Supreme Court | Birth Control

Court Divided Over Obamacare Contraceptives Challenge

Court Divided Over Obamacare Contraceptives Challenge

Wednesday, 23 March 2016 01:19 PM

The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared to be headed toward a possible 4-4 split over a legal challenge launched by Christian groups demanding full exemption on religious grounds from a requirement under President Barack Obama's healthcare law to provide health insurance covering contraceptives.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote in close cases, appeared more aligned with the court's three other conservatives in favoring the Christian groups.

The court's four liberals appeared likely to side with the Obama administration. Only eight justices are considering the case following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, was passed by Congress over unified Republican opposition. It is considered Obama's signature legislative achievement. Conservatives have mounted numerous legal challenges to the law, with the Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015 issuing high-profile rulings leaving it intact.

The court heard a 90-minute oral argument on seven related cases focusing on whether nonprofit entities that oppose the requirement for religious reasons can object under a 1993 U.S. law called the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a compromise measure offered by the government.

A 4-4 split would leave in place lower court rulings that rejected the challenges mounted by the Christian groups but would set no national legal precedent.

The liberal justices raised concerns about allowing the religious organizations the same exemptions that churches have. Justice Elena Kagan said Congress would then stop giving churches exemptions when it passes laws, which would be a "mortal danger to churches."

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said the challengers' contention that the government is seeking to "hijack" their health insurance plans in order to provide contraception coverage appeared to be an "accurate description."

He and other conservatives raised the question of whether there are other ways the coverage could be provided.

The Christian groups object to a compromise first offered by the Obama administration in 2013. It allows groups opposed to providing insurance covering birth control to comply with the law without actually paying for the required coverage.

Groups can certify they are opting out of the requirement by signing a form and submitting it to the government. The government then asks insurers to pick up the tab for the contraception.

The challengers contend the accommodation violates their religious rights by forcing them to authorize the coverage for their employees even if they are not paying for it.

The case represents an uphill battle for the challengers, who lost all seven cases now before the Supreme Court in lower courts.

Scalia, a conservative Roman Catholic, was considered a reliable vote for the religious groups. In 2014, he was in the majority when the court ruled 5-4 that family-owned companies run on religious principles, including craft retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, could object to the provision for religious reasons.

If the four conservatives who sided with Scalia in that case remain unified, the best result the challengers could get would be a 4-4 split.

A Colorado-based order of Roman Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor that runs care homes for the elderly was among the groups challenging the requirement.

Among the other challengers were: Bishop David Zubik and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh; the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C.; Priests for Life; and East Texas Baptist University.

Dozens of supporters of the Obama administration's position gathered outside the courthouse for a noisy rally ahead of the oral arguments. Several held signs featuring the slogan "my birth control, my business."

A ruling is due by the end of June.

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The Supreme Court is taking up a challenge from faith-based groups that object to an Obama administration effort to ensure their employees and students can get cost-free birth control.
US, Supreme Court, Birth Control
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 01:19 PM
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