The Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s ruling that required the University of Notre Dame to cover all forms of birth control for its employees under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare. The March 9 ruling by the high court allows Notre Dame to make an appeal for exemption from the ACA contraception mandate because of its ties to the Catholic Church. The Supreme Court ruled on a finding by the 7th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that Notre Dame was not exempt despite its religious character.
The appeals court must now re-examine its decision in light of the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in the Hobby Lobby case of 2014. Over 750 plaintiffs in the other nonprofit cases have thus been granted protection from the mandate, which forces religious ministries to either violate their faith or pay massive IRS penalties.
Until the Supreme Court had ruled in Hobby Lobby case, all employers who had no explicit religious affiliation faced fines if they refused to cover contraception for its female employees. The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires employers to cover to women including access to contraception and sterilization. Family-owned companies, such as Hobby Lobby Stores Ltd and nonprofits affiliated to religious groups that oppose abortion and sometimes the use of contraceptives, claim the requirement infringes on their religious beliefs as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The federal government has relied on the appeals court decision and argued that it should be able to impose similar burdens on religious ministries such as the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In August 2014, the federal government amended its compromise plan for religious nonprofits, thus substantially changing the legal landscape since the appeals court ruled against Notre Dame. The compromise sought to allow groups to certify they are opting out, which then forces insurers to pick up the tab for contraception and sterilization.
Notre Dame claimed that the certification process would still essentially forces the groups to authorize the coverage for employees even if they are not technically paying for it. Religious institutions are exempt from the contraception coverage requirement. Various courts in the country had ruled on the issue since the Supreme Court decision, and decided in favor of the federal government, finding the compromise does not impose a substantial burden on the plaintiffs' religious beliefs. Religious rights are also protected under a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“This is a major blow to the federal government’s contraception mandate. For the past year, the Notre Dame decision has been the centerpiece of the government’s effort to force religious ministries to violate their beliefs or pay fines to the IRS.” said Mark Rienzi, who is Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that filed an amicus brief in the case. “As with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby, this is a strong signal that the Supreme Court will ultimately reject the government’s narrow view of religious liberty. The government fought hard to prevent this GVR, but the Supreme Court rejected their arguments.”
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