Diving back into a controversy it has heard three times in the past three years, the Supreme Court of the United States Friday agreed to hear hear appeals brought by Christian groups requesting exemptions from the requirement to provide insurance covering contraception under President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law. The new case, expected to be heard in March 2016, will be the fourth time the high court has considered the issue.
According to Reuters, "The nine justices will consider seven related cases on whether nonprofit groups that oppose the requirement on religious grounds can object under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a compromise measure offered by the Obama administration."
The administration's compromise would involve sending a letter to either an insurance carrier or a federal agency certifying their objection to providing contraceptives, something to which the groups object.
Chief among the plaintiffs are likely to be the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic ministry which has had a challenge before the 10th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals denied, setting up the Supreme Court case. The Little Sisters, a religious order that serves the elderly, contend they would be "complicit in evil" by doing anything to facilitate the dispensing of contraception, even filing a letter of objection.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, and lead counsel for the Little Sisters of the Poor, noting the Obama administration's efforts to force compliance by the nuns, said last month President Obama told Pope Francis "he would 'stand with' the Pope 'in defense of religious freedom.' Forcing nuns to violate their faith for no good reason is a very strange way to do that."
The issue of the contraceptive mandate — a rule drafted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and not specified in the Affordable Care Act as passed by Congress — led to a variety of lawsuits from Christian groups, as well as from several privately held firms whose owners said they objected to providing some contraceptives they believe could induce abortion.
The private businesses, most notably the arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., won a major victory in the Supreme Court on June 30, 2014, when the high court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby. Ironically, Justice Samuel Alito, in writing the majority opinion, said federal agencies offered some exemptions to religious nonprofits, and thus could offer the same mechanism to businesses.
On September 23, the Little Sisters received perhaps the highest endorsement possible for their case: Pope Francis made a surprise visit to their offices, which according to Father Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, was a "sign of support for them" in their legal fight.
"The Holy Father spoke to each of us individually, from the youngest postulant to our centenarian, and then he spoke to all of us about the importance of our ministry to the elderly," said Sister Constance Veit, the group's communications director. "We were deeply moved by his encouraging words."
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