WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide if the Trump administration can let employers and universities with religious or moral objections deny women insurance coverage for contraceptives.
The justices' willingness to hear a dispute the high court has considered twice before likely bodes well for groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, which have disputed a birth control mandate first implemented under President Barack Obama in 2011.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, most employers were required to cover the full cost of contraceptives for their workers. The provision has been embroiled in lawsuits ever since.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that private corporations with religious objections, such as Hobby Lobby, could get exemptions. When non-profit groups sought similar exemptions two years later, the court sent seven disputes back to federal appeals courts in search of a compromise. That has proven elusive.
The Trump administration changed the rules in 2017 to provide the broad exemption sought by those claiming conscience objections. That action was challenged by California, Pennsylvania and other states, and federal courts blocked the new rules nationwide.
The Justice Department had urged the Supreme Court to hear the case again "to bring clarity and closure that neither lower courts nor ... the agencies can provide." It claimed an appeals court ruling went so far as to imperil current exemptions for churches and other religious organizations.
Mark Rienzi, the lawyer representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, had likened the need for religious exemptions on birth control coverage to other issues, such as legal abortion and assisted suicide.
“Why is Pennsylvania still trying to fight tired and unnecessary culture wars that were settled years ago?" Rienzi said Friday in a statement. "There are plenty of ways to provide people with contraceptives without forcing Catholic nuns to participate.
"It's too bad that the Supreme Court is being forced by Pennsylvania to deal with this issue again, but at least the court can now bring this litigation to a permanent end,” Rienzi said.
Women's rights groups originally warned that the administration's rules risked free birth control coverage for millions of women. Conservative groups said fewer than 200,000 women would be affected and could recoup coverage for contraceptives directly from insurers.
“Allowing employers and universities to use their religious beliefs to block employees’ and students’ birth control coverage isn’t religious liberty – it's discrimination,” said Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The Trump administration’s attempt to take away people’s insurance coverage for contraception is one of the administration’s many attacks on access to abortion and contraception."