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Supreme Court sends Obamacare contraception case back to lower courts

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A short-handed Supreme Court on Monday sent back to the lower courts several challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage requirement, saying there was a possible compromise between religious objectors and the Obama administration.

The unsigned and unanimous three-page decision was unusual — and largely a punt by a court equally divided along ideological lines after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

Both sides in the lawsuits had made concessions since the case was argued in March, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in announcing the decision from the bench.

A pause will provide an opportunity for them 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 said.

The carefully balanced and narrow decision — the court went out of its way to say it was not deciding the merits of the case — is indicative of the cautious approach the justices have taken since Scalia’s death. They have said they are trying to avoid deadlock when possible. More narrow decisions are likely, and the court has slowed its pace of accepting controversial cases for next term.

The contraceptive case was supposed to have been one of the big ones this term. It asked how to make good on Obamacare’s promise that women will receive the health-care coverage they are entitled to when they work for religiously affiliated organizations that believe providing the coverage implicates them in sin.

The next steps are unclear, although the opinion revives challenges to the law filed all across the country and seems to envision some sort of negotiation between the objecting organizations and the administration.

“This is a very short order that raises lots of questions,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sided with the administration.

On the one hand, the decision vacated a series of lower-court rulings that said the Obama administration had done enough to accommodate the objections of religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, charities and universities. Eight of nine appeals courts that considered the issue ruled for the administration.

For the challengers, vacating those decisions was key. “I think anyone would recognize that as a win,” said Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a charity of nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor.


Source: Robert Barnes, washingtonpost.com