By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday took up an appeal by President Donald Trump’s administration seeking to enforce new federal rules allowing employers to obtain religious exemptions from an Obamacare requirement that health insurance that they provide to employees pays for women’s birth control.
At issue is a challenge by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the administration’s 2018 rule that permits broad religious and moral exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and expands accommodations already allowed under the 2010 law dubbed Obamacare. The administration has asked the Supreme Court to reverse a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court blocking the rule from taking effect.
The administration was joined by the Little Sisters of the Poor, an Roman Catholic order of nuns that is one of the groups seeking an exemption for its employees, although the group does not currently have to comply with the Obamacare mandate due to a separate Colorado court ruling in its favor.
Arguments in the case before the high court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority including two justices appointed by Trump, are likely to be in April with a ruling due by the end of June.
“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, and we hope the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court’s ruling blocking this awful law,” said Brigitte Amiri, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the rule.
Mark Rienzi, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters, said he was hopeful the Supreme Court would finally resolve the long-running litigation over religious nonprofit groups, which already reached the Supreme Court once in 2016.
“There are plenty of ways to provide people with contraceptives without forcing Catholic nuns to participate,” Rienzi said.
The Obamacare contraceptive mandate, part of Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, requires that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for birth control with no co-payment. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage.
The blocked Trump rule would allow any nonprofit or for-profit employer, including publicly held companies, to seek an exemption on religious grounds. A moral objection can be made by nonprofits and companies that are not publicly traded.
The administration’s rule also applies to religiously affiliated universities that provide health insurance to students.
In practice, many of these employers can still seek exemptions because of a different injunction issued by a judge in Texas last year that provides similarly broad exemptions to the contraception requirement.
The legal question is whether Trump’s administration had legal authority to expand the exemption under both the Obamacare law itself and another federal law, the Religious Freedom restoration Act, which allows people to press religious claims against the federal government.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld a nationwide injunction issued by a district court judge in the lawsuit by New Jersey and Pennsylvania, blocking implementation of the rule. Separately, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld a lower court’s injunction blocking the rule in a group of 14 states.
In the 2016 Supreme Court case, the justices sidestepped a decision on previous rules issued by the Obama administration, sending the dispute back to lower courts.
At that time, religious employers including the Little Sisters opposed the government rules. This time, following changes made by the Trump administration, they supported them.
Under the Obama rule, religious entities were exempt and an accommodation was created for religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, which some groups objected to for not going far enough.
In a 2014 Supreme Court decision involving Christian-owned craft store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, the court said that privately held companies could bring objections to the contraception mandate on religious grounds.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)