Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from a White House spokesman.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether religious nonprofits should be required to provide birth control benefits to female employees even if the employers object to certain contraceptives on religious grounds.
The court announced Friday that it would consider a case brought by East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University against the federal government over a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring some employers to provide contraceptive coverage. It is one of seven related cases from around the country that the high court agreed to hear at once.
The religious universities oppose emergency contraceptives, including the so-called morning-after pill, and intrauterine devices, which they liken to “abortifacients” — or drugs that induce an abortion. (Health experts and scientists have disputed that claim.)
The Affordable Care Act, or the ACA, requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health plans with “minimum essential coverage,” including access to federally approved contraception for women, without copayments or deductibles.
Under federal religious freedom laws, religious nonprofits can seek “accommodations” to be exempted from the contraceptive mandate by submitting a form or notification certifying the organization’s objection to paying for contraception coverage on religious grounds. Doing so transfers the administrative obligations of providing contraception coverage from the employer to the insurance company or a third party, which takes over handling the claims.
But the universities argue that requirement infringes on their religious freedom because female employees may still be able to obtain contraception under that process.
“No citizen should be forced by the federal government to comply with mandates that violate their conscience, or pay fines just for living in accordance with their beliefs,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who wrote to the high court in support of the religious universities, in a prepared statement. “We hope the Court will reaffirm our rights and protect the free exercise of religion from government intrusion.”
The Obama administration has said access to contraception is an essential part of the federal health law. During a press briefing Friday in Washington, D.C., White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration was confident the Supreme Court would rule in its favor and uphold the process in place to exempt religious nonprofits.
"We continue to have confidence in the power of the legal argument that we have made at the circuit court level that the policy we have in place appropriately balances the need for millions of Americans to have access to birth control while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in our Constitution," Earnest said.Friday’s announcement began the final chapter of a legal battle that has been tied up for years in courts around the country. A federal district court initially sided with the Texas universities, blocking the requirement from going into effect. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services appealed the case to the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite being considered the most conservative appellate court in the country, the appeals judges reversed that decision, saying the universities had “not shown and are not likely to show that the requirement substantially burdens their religious exercise under established law.”
The case was then kicked up to the Supreme Court, which will have the final word on the issue. A decision is expected sometime within the next year.