On May 16 the U.S. Supreme Court reached an 8-0 decision in Zubik v. Burwell. Several organizations are suing the Obama Administration over the Department of Health and Human Service's contraceptive mandate. The most notable organization represented in Zubik was the Catholic religious order Little Sisters of the Poor.
The decision was described in many media reports as a “punt,” since the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts for the parties to reach a final accommodation. The decision is a temporary victory, however, because it forbids the Obama Administration from enforcing crippling fines against organizations who don’t comply with the HHS Mandate.
The mandate was a dictate by the Obama Administration requiring employers to cover contraceptives and sterilizations as “preventative health services.” The Obamacare law requires all preventative services to be covered by health insurance plans for free. A few of the contraception options required to be covered can potentially cause abortions, including common forms of emergency contraception. The HHS Mandate was not part of the law itself as passed by lawmakers in Congress.
Right to Life of Michigan filed a separate suit in federal court against the Obama Administration over the HHS Mandate, but the case was dismissed by a federal judge after several delays. Right to Life of Michigan takes no position on true contraceptives, but it’s wrong to force an organization dedicated to ending abortion to purchase insurance plans that include drugs that can cause abortions.
As the many cases worked their way through the system, the Obama Administration continued to assert that there was no acceptable way for them to accommodate the deeply held beliefs of the Little Sisters of the Poor or other organizations. The Supreme Court disagreed, however, and even the Obama Administration belatedly admitted that other options were available.
A similar case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., involved closely-held for-profit companies that objected to the HHS Mandate. Nonprofits organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Right to Life of Michigan were not included in that decision. By a 5-4 decision in Hobby Lobby the Supreme Court ruled that the Obama Administration violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in attempting to force Hobby Lobby to purchase contraceptives. Hobby Lobby’s owners objected to only potentially abortifacient forms of contraceptives and offered other forms of birth control coverage to employees.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Zubik asserted that the Court did not reach a decision on whether or not the HHS Mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for nonprofits. Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia the fate of nonprofit organizations was in serious doubt. A potential 4-4 ruling would have left a patchwork of decisions in place depending on which circuit court district an organization was incorporated in.